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COVID Estrangement Syndrome

How to deal with creeping authoritarianism

As the third anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown approaches, Matt Hancock’s leaked text messages have provided piecemeal insights into the reactive chaos that drove the Government’s capricious response to the crisis. Whilst the former Health Secretary reflects on the wisdom of his decisions — including, no doubt, his choice of Isabel Oakeshott as biographer — I find myself analysing my own actions during the pandemic, along with the conduct of people in what I used to consider my political tribe. 

Such musings are not infrequent because I am recovering from a coronavirus-related condition that doesn’t have an official designation from the World Health Organisation, but which I call Covid Estrangement Syndrome (CES). At its potent peak, this illness of identity leaves sufferers bewildered and disorientated — their thoughts vacillating between a dread that they have lost their minds and a conviction they are completely sane but everyone else has become totally unhinged. Alienation from family and friends can result from infection. The only known treatment is a self-administered psychological programme of wilful disassociation with the events of the pandemic years. 

My personal story of CES is typical. Pre-Covid, I was a fully paid-up liberal leftie, nodding along with James O’Brien’s rants on LBC about the evils of Brexit and our self-serving Tory overlords. It’s fair to say, therefore, that I wasn’t a huge fan of Boris Johnson even before he appeared on our television screens on March 23rd, 2020, to tell the nation we must all stay at home. 

My employer had morphed into a Covid restrictions propaganda machine

As I watched a man I considered to be a narcissistic, mop-topped menace attempting to freeze his habitually smirking countenance into a solemn mask to fit the occasion, I cursed him and his government for their tardy action. Why had the PM missed those vital Cobra meetings? Why hadn’t all international flights been grounded? Why weren’t we testing more people? How had it come to this? I remained in lockstep with my #FBPE political tribe who had drawn the same seemingly inescapable conclusion that I had: Boris was a feckless fool whose mad talk of “herd immunity” would result in an apocalyptic death toll. We needed action: firm, fast and far-reaching. Little did I know I would soon abandon this mindset and undergo a wholesale intellectual reversal. 

As a BBC journalist, the immediate practical impact of lockdown on my life was actually rather pleasant. Although my “broadcast critical” job meant I still had to go into the office, my commute into central London became a surreal breeze of empty train carriages and, initially, some new Covid-related travel expenses: a win-win. 

As the first six months of the pandemic era unfolded, however, my mood darkened. I reflected on the predictable consequences of lockdowns, social distancing restrictions and school closures. I began to see the “cure” as worse than the disease. The Government was pursuing a path that would lead to serious economic turmoil and scarring, NHS backlogs, needless deaths of non-Covid causes, and profound educational and mental health impacts on children. 

CES began to take root. It had been weighing heavily on my conscience that my employer had morphed rapidly into a Covid restrictions propaganda machine. Rather than challenging the authoritarian nature of our Government’s approach to the virus, BBC News was buttressing any and all restrictions whilst calling for ministers to go even further, faster. Colleagues I had considered friends collaborated enthusiastically with this approach. My protests were waved away or rebuffed with scorn. 

My liberal heroes on social media had also abandoned me. It became clear that the compassionate, caring, human rights-loving left had only contempt and condemnation for anyone who demurred from their simplistic lockdown logic and fanaticism for face coverings. 

Then there was my family. I remember replying to one pro-mask tweet by a celebrity sportsman, known for his fashionable liberal leanings, with the sarcastic remark, “What next? Mandatory hazmat suits for anyone who dares to venture outside?” For this show of dissent, a close relative sent me a sharp reprimand via direct message. CES began to tighten its grip. 

Why had my tribe abandoned the values I thought underpinned its credo?

As I tried to make sense of this bleak new world, I sought out those who were on the same page as me: people who believed in liberty, privacy and medical autonomy; people who had read history and learned freedoms easily surrendered are often hard to win back; people who were worried about the precedents being set by legislation allowing the Government to monitor and curtail almost every aspect of our lives. I found myself seeking out different voices in the media, reading periodicals I would have previously dismissed as right-wing rubbish. I even wrote to a Tory Brexit hardliner MP, praising him for his vocal campaigning against his party’s illiberal approach to the pandemic. As I read his polite reply to my glowing missive with delight, I realised I had a full-blown case of Covid Estrangement Syndrome. 

How had this happened? Why had my tribe abandoned the values I thought underpinned its credo? I understood that many of them wanted to “do the right thing”, but how could shutting older people out of society for years — and, in many cases, forcing them to live the last months of their lives in desperate sedentary isolation — be right? How could preventing a husband from seeing his dying wife be moral? How could it be ethical to pay well-off people to sit at home whilst the working classes had to work even harder to ensure Amazon parcels and Ocado deliveries arrived at middle class suburbs on time? How could advocating for vaccine passports (a form of medical apartheid) be anything but very, very wrong? It seemed increasingly clear that my tribe had gone insane. 

Or had they? Perhaps they weren’t mad, and I was bad. Maybe I was finding fault in my fellow travellers because the pandemic had exposed my own inadequacies. Could it be that I just didn’t care enough about my fellow human beings and valued my freedoms higher than their safety? Perhaps I was just too selfish to endure the collective sacrifices necessary to mitigate Covid’s impact on the vulnerable? 

I still ask myself these questions, and I don’t shy away from the uncomfortable truths that may lie within the answers. Whatever my shortcomings, I can’t help but conclude that my former tribe — the “progressive”, “liberal” left — took a chillingly authoritarian approach to Covid without any regard for the consequences. Few have admitted they were wrong or expressed contrition. Therefore, I can no longer count myself amongst their number. So what am I? 

I am a sufferer of Covid Estrangement Syndrome: politically homeless, distrustful of anyone who follows mainstream narratives unquestioningly, but equally resistant to absurd conspiracy theories. It’s a strange and unsettling place to find myself. Like Matt Hancock, I will have to come to terms with the fallout from the pandemic and somehow make my peace with the world. 

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