In the last week of March, my friend K. succumbed to Covid-19. It was slow – she stayed at home for most of the illness – until it was fast, and when it was fast, it was relentless. K. was as kind as she was tough. She liked a drink and loved a conversation. She had a talent for making me – anyone, really – laugh, and when I did, so would she: a crackling, unabashed laugh that rolled from her in a landscape of sound. Happiness, in breath’s shape. But her breath is gone, and I am furious.
‘Isn’t this grief?’ I’m asked. Perhaps. So what? We are so accustomed to contrasting sentiment with reason that we have forgotten that emotion can sharpen our vision, opening us to otherwise overlooked evidence on which reason can act. When serene, I threw about the benefit of the doubt as a gift to all. Now I see it is a currency with which our leaders will buy first-class tickets off the hook.
No matter the cost of this calamity, those in charge will find a means to transform it into a useful tale of their victory against the odds. And we will abet them. The time will come when we will all have to reckon both with our leaders and with ourselves as we tally the debits and credits accrued in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. With our leaders, obviously, because it will be their performances that head the balance sheets. But, less obviously, with ourselves, the assessors, because our future gratitude to the powers that be, on the far side of the pandemic, grows in proportion to its deepening darkness.
Relief, trauma, exhaustion, habituation, mourning, the welcome amnesia of the new dawn: these will conspire, later, to blunt our judgment and dull our memory. For now, as the numbers climb, and the coloured curves mount the graphs, we may treasure, if we are lucky, the calm that attends our confinement to the domestic sphere. But we owe our future selves, not to mention our current selves, and those already gone, the focused light of fury.
‘But now is not the time for anger.’ That’s another one, intended to defuse your rage, and you’ll hear it over and over again. First, it will be too early: what we have to do now is pull together, there will be time enough for recriminations later, you shouldn’t politicise this tragedy, the present is too dangerous for point-scoring. And then it will be too late: what we really have to do now is pull together, you should have said all of this at the time, what’s done is done, we need to look forwards not back. Anger, it seems, can never have its time.
This isn’t to deny that anger – misplaced, misdirected, mistimed – can deform and destroy both the person who feels it and those closest to them. But to try to ration what does not come in parts, or to cool what does not come in degrees, is to undertake only to extinguish. You can’t slice a flame to size, or persuade it to burn lukewarm. Still, encouraging us to disarm our anger serves the ends of those in power, who lead not by example but by platitude.
‘In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted. Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together,’ Boris Johnson said on 23 March, belatedly announcing a UK-wide lockdown. ‘Day by day we are strengthening our amazing NHS,’ he said, having refused to participate in the EU’s block-buying scheme to secure personal protective equipment for health workers, and ventilators for patients. ‘We are no longer members of the EU,’ his spokesman explained on the 26th. A few hours later, after a torrent of outrage, we were told that our absence from the scheme was the result of ‘a communication problem’. ‘There is such a thing as society,’ he announced on the 29th. What a moment to discover the object against which his party has set itself for forty years.
Johnson, having been admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 last week, is now out of hospital and recovering, thanks to the ministrations of doctors, nurses, support workers, cleaners and others, all at risk, all weighing their lives against the importance of their work in a way that no prime minister is ever called on to do. Like many others, Johnson has fallen victim to government policies; unlike the other casualties, he is responsible for those policies. It’s striking to see a politician suffer the direct consequences of his own mis-steps. Normally they are too well insulated to feel the effects.
A few weeks ago, it was possible to think that the deaths in Wuhan and Italy might at least furnish lessons to countries that were not yet afflicted by Covid-19. In the UK those lessons were not learned, thanks to a form of cultural and political exceptionalism based on stupidity at best, xenophobia at worst. We were told to ‘keep calm and carry on.’ K. kept calm and she carried on, until the government asked her, too late, not to. Days later, she died. A week would have made all the difference in the world, to her, and to all the others whose numbers will not be known for months.
The last blow, and perhaps the hardest: ‘You, who claim friendship, are politicising your friend’s death.’ No. You can’t politicise what is already political. There is so much anger yet to come. I hope it burns clean.