London is under lockdown, finally, as of March 23. Yet, we have been in ‘self-isolation’ for over a week, a contradiction in terms if there was one. A day after the British prime minister had finally announced the lockdown to the nation, there had already been upwards of 8,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK, with over 300 dead. London is the epicentre of the pandemic. The number is now close to 15,000, with over 750 dead.
Until the lockdown, my leafy, upper middle-class neighbourhood continued to flourish as urban neighbourhoods in first-world countries do—bars, restaurants, parks and gyms throbbed with people who assumed their youth, vitality and wealth made them immune to this deadly virus. Since the lockdown, the injunction to ‘stay at home’ has had to be embraced as a mantra by all, the irony of which casually passes over our furtive glances at the homeless that continue to dot our high street. For the last week, however, I haven’t seen the Romanian woman who sells Big Issue, a weekly magazine produced by a charity for homeless people. Much as I would sometimes recoil from her persistent pleas to buy her magazine at often inconvenient times, her absence sticks out as a terrible sign.
My self-isolation, of course, commenced earlier because my university, about a hundred miles away, has intimated us that all teaching and other activity until the end of summer will probably move online. And the end of summer seems like an optimistic estimate. My partner is in the same position. Neither of us has to physically go in to work for the foreseeable future.
For a while before the COVID-19 situation, we had not entered our regular classrooms anyway. As members of the University and College Union, we had been on strike, withdrawing our labour to demand better pensions, fair wages and a more egalitarian higher education system, one that has been defiantly and systematically eroded by successive New Labour and Tory governments in the name of efficiency, counting outputs, measuring impact and filling out time-sheets. As I hurriedly dash off emails to the PhD students in my department that I am responsible for, checking in to see if they are safe wherever they are – stuck in Montreal, or in interminable transit to home in China, Australia, Qatar or India, or rushing back to families in London – I am aware that their insecurity has just increased manifold.
Here at home, we also have our 10-year-old daughter in her final year of primary school. After much prevarication from the government, schools in the UK have finally shut down ‘until further notice’. The government made the timing of the decision seem as if it was rationally thought through and was part of some invisible but genius plan that only the experts knew about. The reality is that the announcement came only after persistent pleas by parents and teaching unions asking the government to stop risking the lives of young pupils and teachers.
Clothed in scientific expertise on “herd immunity” and upward and downward curves of infection, and delivered in various accents of privilege, the daily press briefing conducted at 10 Downing Street has seemed like a pantomime being played out for a population that seems more dispensable than ever before. Social Darwinism, after all, is a fond faith for Johnson and his advisers. Now, the ideologues who have devoted their lives to privatising education and destroying education itself as a public good are calling on the very schools whose funding has been cut so ruthlessly to become havens of social welfare and concern. For even in the aspirant area of north London where we live, there are too many vulnerable children—those on free school meals, those who live in dangerous domestic situations, those whose parents are key workers in the economy—doctors, nurses, teachers, fire-fighters, train drivers.
Meanwhile, the liberal parents of my neighbourhood have epitomised the spirit of “keep calm and carry on”, in quiet British desperation fashion. When I posted a New York Times article on the Facebook page for local parents on the dangers that COVID-19 posed to children as well, I was accused by some of fueling anxiety. They would rather not have this information. Decades of ideological numbing-down have ill-prepared us to sift fact from fiction, calm from paranoia, worry from panic.
This moment is, after all, all about ‘let us leave it to the experts’. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, is the star expert. Like many top scientific bureaucrats, he has copious amounts of experience working in the world of multinational pharmaceutical companies like Glaxo Smithkline. Understandably, he is a big proponent of industry-academia collaborations. He has played a big part in rolling out research and medicines for cancer, asthma and a whole lot of other illnesses. Sadly, big pharma has not had the foresight or the will to look for medicines that can prevent such epidemics, even when this virus has been known of since the 1960s, or at least provide immunity to the most vulnerable. It is far more profitable to let people get sick and make money from that.
Now more than ever, the thin line between charity, public good, scientific knowledge, corporate profit and political power is brittle. Assisting Vallance is Chris Whitty, who is the chief medical adviser to the UK government. Both Vallance and Whitty are products of the private education system here, which signifies a more consolidated layer of class privilege than it does in India’s ramshackle edifice of private schools that range from the mohalla Oxford Academy to posh institutions made in the image of Eton and Harrow.
Whitty has worked for Department for International Development (Dfid) and the Gates Foundation, which as a Nation article recently surmised enriches Gates most of all through his acts of charity. Leading the pantomime cast is of course the classics-educated Boris Johnson who dispenses advice about everyday behaviour and asks people to “sedulously” follow his recommendations and wash hands repeatedly as if he was performing for a public school debate. He is a reminder that you can take the boy away from Eton, but not Eton away from the man. On Friday, he confirmed he had contracted the infection.
While these may be the public faces we encounter on television each day, behind the scenes, there is complex modelling from Imperial College that informs this government’s policy for flattening the curve, in particular research coming out from MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, J-IDEA (Abdul Lateef Jamil Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics). Neil Ferguson has emerged as the stellar modeller-scientist whose research bridges sophisticated mathematical modelling, epidemiological research and public policy.
Those of us in the humanities and social sciences have historically borne the brunt of this generalised faith in modelling as the arbiter of measuring the impact of research for the public good as we dodge the constantly shifting goal-posts in humanities education. Under the auspices of the Research Excellence Framework, an elaborate and highly bureaucratised system that ranks university departments based on their research ‘outputs’ and ‘impact factors’, each of us not only has to prove that our research has had impact, but must provide evidence of how it has changed policy!
From the perspective of an academic based in the UK, this perfect storm raised by the novel coronavirus is consequential not only for every sphere of economy and society, but also for knowledge and how we understand it, and what it is for. When we finally emerge from the ravages of COVID-19 it may well prove to be the perfect instantiation of what Naomi Klein famously wrote about in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, a brilliant analysis of disaster capitalism for which catastrophes are opportunities to re-organise the world and make it even more profitable for capitalism.
When I hear the Indian-origin chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak dispense massive doses of cash into the National Health Service, and towards the welfare of those who are staring at job losses and business closures, and who speaks of the necessity of compassion and care, I wonder if this appropriation of vocabulary borrowed from a long-discredited welfare system suggests a triumph for socialist ideas, emphasising how even right-wing formations are only legitimate and powerful when they stand in the interests of the people. Or does this mark the even greater narrowing of left and progressive possibilities as the entire idea of social justice is now cannibalised by right-wing populism?
For now, most of us are left to our own devices. Where notices of missing cats and lost wedding rings used to adorn the lovely trees in my neighbourhood, there are fliers with phone numbers of neighbours we have never seen before offering to run errands for the elderly and the house-bound, to walk our dogs or to procure essential medicines for the unwell. This is sociality repackaged as ‘mutual-aid’ in the time of social distancing. In hopeful moments, I think that it signals, however belatedly and tenuously, the demise of what the neoliberal city has made us accustomed to—unbridled self-improvement, instantaneous consumption and the myth of individual immunity.
Brexit was supposed to inoculate Britain from foreign elements by closing down borders against Europe. But the virus in itself has no morality or political orientation. It will go ravenously to wherever social resistance has been weakened by decades of greed and profiteering by the global elites. It is no surprise then that cities like London are its epicentre.
Rashmi Varma is an associate professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick.