by Sinéad Murphy
On some days during the past couple of weeks, the U.K. government has reported one death or no death with COVID-19 – of the over 1,600 people who die here on an average day. And yet the lockdown goes on: hospitality still shackled; travel still banned; doctors’ surgeries still shut; masks still mandated.
More than this, the Conservative Party, under whose leadership we continue to endure these inhuman restrictions, received a rallying endorsement in recent elections. The people of Hartlepool – one of the poorest towns in the country and crushed by Government Covid policies – not only voted in a Tory member of parliament for the first time in history but suffered a 30-feet-high effigy of Boris Johnson to be inflated in celebration on their pier.
Two recent attempts to account for our persistent allegiance to lockdown policies, and to the Government that invents them, have suggested ‘Status Quo Bias’ (Noah Carl, Lockdown Sceptics) and ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ (Freddie Sayers, UnHerd) as possible explanations.
Certainly, the propensity to rather bear those ills we have and cleave to the people who visit them upon us is now in evidence: many have grown accustomed to the ‘New Normal’ and seem reluctant to reassert their autonomy against authority.
But something more fundamental must be at work, to have generated such an irrational bias in favour of such a devastating status quo, and such unlikely loyalty to those who imprison us with such cruelty.
In an essay from 25 years ago on contemporary conditions of work, the Italian philosopher Paulo Virno identified the phenomenon of uprooting as increasingly operative in societies like his own. Not a once-off uprooting, such as moving from one job or career to another, but an unending process of uprooting, the effect of precarious employment and its continual auditing, in which workers must always be ready to move onwards or upwards and to cultivate the commensurate skills of adaptability and virtuosic sociability.
Most pertinent in Virno’s analysis is the alliance it indicated between this endless uprooting and a certain brand of gullibility. The erosion of stability gives rise to a hyperbolic and free-floating feeling of belonging, even though occasions for it are slight or implausible.
“The impossibility of securing ourselves within any durable context,” Virno wrote, “disproportionately increases our adherence to the most fragile instances of the here and now… to every present order, to all rules, to all games.”
Does the phenomenon of uprooting that Virno described apply to our situation now? Does it explain the curious adherence of so many in our society to the present Covid order and to those who dictate it, no matter how fragile it, and they, have become?
I believe it does – not least because the uprooting-without-end that Virno identified back in the 1990s has since infected an even more fundamental aspect of our existence than our conditions of work: our basic physical being in the world.
The physical spaces in which we have been most firmly rooted – public areas, our planet, our own person – are now reframed as places on which we may often only trespass, and the resulting experience of unending displacement produces precisely what Virno described: an exaggerated feeling of belonging to our new Covid world and its leaders.
Long before Covid, several streets in the city of Newcastle where I live had been repurposed as “Safety Zones”, carved by lines and hung with signs so that anyone using them is inevitably intermittently in the wrong place. Even leafy thoroughfares, wide enough for ad hoc negotiations between any amount of human traffic, have been so officiously mapped out that you can hardly plant your foot on them with ease or impunity.
But since Covid, this effect has intensified beyond imaginings. All public spaces are now in the mode of the “Safety Zone”, repurposed quickly and carelessly as places in which we humans are merely tolerated. Streets and parks, mostly emptied of human souls, are a confusion of bollards and arrows, policed by ‘Marshalls’ and ‘Hosts’ whose directions are barked at us as we weave in and out of displacement, all the while pummeled by those infernal “COVID-19 Keep Your Distance” metal signs.
Uprooted from our common spaces, we tip-toe about in the public domain, like poachers stealing ground and siphoning air.
And this great uprooting is now escalated: we are officially named as trespassers on the planet we have been used to call our home.
This uprooting too predates the advent of Covid. For many years, we have endured talk of our unfortunate footprint, which we have been told must be minimised to the point of erasure.
But from the very start – when oblique descriptions of the alleged horrors of the Wuhan wet markets were presented as indicative of humanity’s pillage of nature – the Covid script has been played out alongside its Climate counterpart. The virus has been repeatedly characterized, though often only vaguely, as a kind of rightful punishment for our unwieldy encroachment on the earth.
And now it is entirely explicit: in an interview with the BBC on April 15th, David Attenborough said that we humans are “intruders” on this earth, to which we are latecomers, he said, and which would do far better if we were not here.
A profound uprooting – from the planet on which we have, unhappily it seems and unnaturally too, evolved as indelicate invaders.
But the final elaboration of the process of our displacement is perhaps the most insidious, as we find ourselves uprooted even from our own body.
This uprooting, like the others, has been in the offing. Several dimensions of human so-called ‘identity’ have relied upon the increasingly
mainstream possibility that human beings can be in the ‘wrong’ body: that our body can be against us, that our body can betray us, that we may have to extract ourselves from our body in order to flourish.
But with Covid, this uprooting from our physical person is no longer a marginal phenomenon. It is rolled out to the population at large in the figure of the ‘asymptomatic’ person, which has been at the centre of every Covid measure of the last 15 months.
The ‘asymptomatic’ person is, according (most recently) to Dr Mike Yeadon (interview with John Kirby, Perspectives on the Pandemic) and Doctors For Covid Ethics (‘COVID Vaccines: Necessity, Efficacy, and Safety,’ Off Guardian), almost wholly a Covid concoction, an artefact of PCR testing, which has diagnosed as ‘with Covid’ mostly people who have no symptoms at all. And yet, on it goes, the U.K. Government’s vaccination programme running adverts claiming that one in three people capable of transmitting COVID-19 have no symptoms of the disease.
The device of the ‘asymptomatic’ is having a powerful effect, rendering us as strangers to our own physical person, which, we are told, may be deadly to us and to others while giving no sign of this at all.
We are no longer to feel comfortable in our own skin but must, as the Government reminds us, “act like we’ve got it”: wash our hands, catch our breath, and tread ever more carefully across public spaces and the planet, where we are no longer to make ourselves at home.
We inhabit our streets, our world and ourselves now only under sufferance and must shrink from our physical existence – from our “carbon output”, from our “viral load”.
What a limbo to be suspended in – afraid to touch, to breathe, to plant our foot with ease. Corralled in public, planetary and personal spaces reframed as “Safety Zones”.
In such a limbo, anything is likely to be clung to as a lifebuoy, anybody listened to as a savior.
Hence our enthusiasm for the masking, the clapping, the Tik Tok dancing, the taking the knee, the jabbing.
Hence our adherence to lockdowns, proven to have little or no effect on transmission of respiratory viruses and to be devastating in every other way.
Hence our support for people who speak to us from the podium, calmly and firmly killing us with their seeming kindness.
Hence even, perhaps, our fear of the virus, whose infection fatality rate is confirmed now as within the bounds of a stiff seasonal flu. We keep our eye on its dashboard, which steadies us in the wake of our physical supports; we are rooted in our fear of it, which compensates for our profound and ongoing displacement.
Our radical uprooting from all aspects of our physical being may explain our remarkable feeling of belonging, not only to Covid measures and not only to Covid masters but even to the virus itself.
Dr Sinéad Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.