Since late December, politicians, epidemiologists, and news presenters have repeatedly told us that the new B117 strain of Covid-19 is ‘driving transmission’. There’s a metaphor sleeping in this neat phrase: the strain is personified, as if it were itself travelling in a Land Rover from Folkestone to Oxford. ‘Alas!’ Boris Johnson cries, lamenting the new case rates as a natural disaster or an act of God, beyond the control of humans.
The metaphor defuses the question we all should be asking: what caused B117? To say that the new strain ‘drives transmission’ is a bit like saying carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. Both statements are true, but both centre agency—and therefore blame—on something nonhuman. If someone ranted about what a menace carbon dioxide was for climate change, without mentioning the human activity causing increased carbon emissions, you’d be well within your rights to tell them they were missing the point. Just as it’s humans who emit carbon into the atmosphere, it’s humans who host and transmit the Covid-19 virus.
What would it mean, for example, if we turned the phrase on its head and said ‘the government is driving mutations’? As epidemiologist Dr. Deepti Gurdasani explained to me, the virus mutates as it replicates. Most mutations don’t have an impact on transmissibility, she says, but ‘occasionally mutations can emerge that can increase ability to transmit, or evade immune responses. The probability of such mutations is increased as virus replication increases. Mutations that transmit more can become dominant, as they out-compete other variants.’
As cases soared towards the end of last year, the southeast of England became a kind of petri dish, and the virus had ever more chances to mutate. This strain has developed into an unprecedented 17 mutations simultaneously. We are now at risk of a vicious virus cycle: higher transmissions increase the chance of higher mutations, some of which will be more transmissible, and so on; that’s without considering bigger virus cycles, in which deforestation releases more and more zoonotic pathogens, including coronaviruses, into human civilisation.
According to Matt Hancock, the discovery of the new strain in Britain is to be attributed to our world-class advanced genome sequencing and tracking capabilities, led by NERVTAG – and not to the government’s failure to close borders, schools, or adequately support workers with proper sick pay and other key measures. It’s true that Britain is a world leader in genomics. But Britain has also frequently been among the top five or six countries for Covid-19 infections, with an extraordinarily high number of cases for a medium-sized country, which creates the perfect conditions for rapid mutation.
Every time Johnson pleas ‘Alas!’, he taps into the ‘rally around the flag’ rhetoric that’s been a feature since the beginning of the pandemic, and that’s helped incumbent governments across the world with their public polling. He hopes the new strain excuses him for a series of broken promises. After all, it’s easy to carp, but among much of a good-natured public there is a lurking sympathy: surely the government is doing the best it can, in the face of an unprecedented natural disaster? Aren’t we blessed to have top scientists and genome sequencers who will look out to the horizon and track new threats?
The government’s hope is that when we look back on this crisis around the time of the next general election, we will remember a time where they helmed the ship of state against an unavoidable crisis – a typhoon that came out of nowhere, and which was not in any way caused, or worsened, by their actions.
Counselled as they are by SAGE (whose advice they ignore), and flanked in press briefings as they are by scientists, it’s time to raise the fire alarm on the Conservative Party’s growing anti-science position. This is a prime minister who shook hands with Covid patients; this is a Department for Education which in July advised against mask wearing in classrooms, and in December threatened to sue schools if they closed while cases rocketed; this is a chancellor who stamped his brand across an ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ policy that’s since been held responsible for 8-17 percent of new Covid-19 clusters during the second wave.
Hancock’s latest interview in The Spectator suggests that restrictions will be eased rapidly once the over-65s are vaccinated. It sounds much like the discredited ‘focused protection’ strategy advanced by pseudoscientists last summer, which consigned under-65s to ‘herd immunity’ (a term typically used to describe immunity post–vaccination). This is a doomed strategy. As Professor Devi Sridhar notes, the evidence suggests populations are not developing herd immunity via infection, and younger people harbouring long-Covid is a recipe for further mutation.
As Byline Times reports, corrupt lobbyists are fuelling a burgeoning fringe anti-lockdown movement, spearheaded by the likes of Anders Tegnell, author of the catastrophic Swedish ‘herd immunity’ strategy. We know that the lobbying firms that helped Johnson are climate science deniers, and that known anti-lockdown scientists Professors Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan were allowed to brief Johnson personally at the height of the second wave.
The Right have form on this. In the early 1980s, Andrew Neil’s Sunday Times published articles arguing HIV did not cause AIDS, and other stories facilitating a moral panic about homosexuality. The Conservative Party engaged climate sceptics for many years.
Lockdown sceptics believe the virus should simply ‘run its course’. Sunak has said ‘We must learn to live with it [Covid-19], and live without fear,’ which isn’t far removed from Esther McVey’s support for deciding on ‘a tolerable level of deaths’.
This quasi-eugenic strand of thinking has a long history, stretching back to the way elites looked down on the immigrant working-class in the nineteenth century during cholera outbreaks. Before the cause of cholera was known, the so-called ‘miasmatists’ who were in favour of free trade argued that since the disease was in the air (in ‘miasma’), there was little point trying to impose quarantines or lock down the economy. When cholera arrived in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in 1849, an Irish woman in an asylum was stigmatised as ‘patient zero’; hundreds of thousands of Irish who had left Ireland during the Great Famine were subject to this kind of prejudice.
During the first half of 1957, a new flu virus moved across Asia to Britain. The Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said nothing about the pandemic at its peak in October, despite the fact that 1150 people were dying every week and 110,000 children in London were off school with suspected infection. Estimates suggest the pandemic killed more than 30,000 people. Some senior medics and Labour politicians were horrified at the lack of preparation and response, but the Conservatives suffered only a brief polling dip, increasing their majority to 100 by the 1959 election.
As Andy Beckett points out, ‘our national myth often revolves around recovery from disaster’. Today’s Conservatives will bank on this recovery narrative over the coming years, while simultaneously normalising Covid-19 as a natural, seasonal occurrence, like the flu.
After all, for the neoliberal disaster capitalists among the Conservative Party, there is money to be made. An endemic virus might be very profitable for elites in the UK. The New York Times investigation shows that the government has established a secretive ‘VIP’ lane with a private email for a select few companies to provide PPE, ventilators, tests, and other supplies. High virus transmission feeds a certain kind of self-sustaining economy, based on the state paying their cronies for high-cost interventions seasonally; this is a world apart from successful low-cost interventions around the world, from Cuba, to New Zealand, to Vietnam.
It is now time to let go of any lurking sympathy about Covid-19 as a natural disaster. The government have avoided the science at every turn, and are now trying to free themselves from future accountability. The new strain was not a freak out of nature, but a monster of the government’s own making. It’s our duty to remember how the decisions of those in power brought us to this point, and how ready they were to reject science when scientists advised anything big businesses and bosses could not accept. This was not inevitable.