Wednesday 26 May 2021

Cummings, Covid, herd immunity and eugenics

For me the significance of Dominic Cummings' testimony today is first a feeling in the guts. He has conjured up a terrifying picture of this government, mired in incompetence, arrogance and hate. Of course he was part of this but we are looking at one of those rare moments in history when a member of a gang of government wrong-doers splits and spills the beans. Whatever that person thinks, it doesn't absolve them from what happened and the testimony may well be tainted with the same crazed ideology that infected the gang as a whole.

Another way to look at it, is to think of him as the mafiosi who sang. So, for me, what counts is the truth. We don't need to be distracted by Carrie's dog, and whatever levels of pique Cummings suffers from, following his exile to the wings. 

Now to the substance: for me, what counts the most is the herd immunity question. I have been tweeting and saying since at least February this year that we can deduce from statements in the public domain that this was the government's policy for January, February and the first two weeks of March 2020. Others have argued long before me, that this was the policy. Government advisers came on to TV and Radio in mid-March 2020 to urge the government to pursue that policy and they said it with the authority of people being listened to. Robert Peston appeared to be saying so in mid-March 2020 too. 

I'd like to make a slightly different point. It's about ways of thinking, what ideology informed the government's actions, what ideology informed their inclination to go for herd immunity? 

The clues are hiding in plain sight: Johnson's Greenwich speech in early February 2020, and the presence of two advisers partly influenced by eugenicist ideas, working close to the government.  In the speech, Johnson used a very strange phrase but he made clear what he meant by it: he said he was against 'market segregation' as a method of fighting the Coronavirus. He meant that he was against a public health response involving restrictions to trade. 6 weeks or so later, he had to eat his words big time. By then, the virus was embedded in the population. 

The two people with a touch of eugenicist ideas are Andrew Sabisky and Dominic Cummings (1). Many of us have said for decades that seemingly harmless comments about intelligence being inherited come from a sinister source. They are corrupted by an attitude to people, humanity, us. It sees us as divided permanently, inevitably, incontrovertibly by something deep in our bodies - our genes. And this hidden code renders some people inferior to others - and amongst the superior others are always the people telling this story about us. 

This is not of itself 'fascist' but following the behaviour of fascistic and totalitarian regimes - locally or nationally - we know that this is what has underpinned racism, attitudes to the disabled, the mentally ill and indeed anyone deemed to have a 'condition' that a regime doesn't like. It's a way of segregating us into desirable and undesirable, the human and the sub-human. 

To my mind, it's small wonder then that a 'solution' in the face of the pandemic that appealed to significant figures in government, was one that junked people deemed as less necessary, people who could be described as not needing our sympathy if they (we) died: the old, the sick, people with 'underlying health problems' (UHPs). What a great let-out that last phrase is. In one sense, we all have underlying health problems in that when confronted with one virus, some people are susceptible and when confronted with another, other people are susceptible. 

This use of language has been pernicious. It has become 'reasonable' for people to say, on hearing that someone died, 'Oh well, she was getting on a bit.' Or as the journalist Carole Malone put it to me, '...but you were 73' (when I got Covid). What?! What is 'but' about being 73? What is this world where being 73, is a 'but' or something 'less than'? That's how low we've sunk at a moment of crisis. 

We don't actually have a word for this. We have useful words like 'racism' and 'sexism' for labelling forms of discrimination based on other kinds of segregation and prejudice. There's the clumsy 'age discrimination' phrase but because of the rubbish about 'underlying health problems' this wasn't only about the old. 

So when it comes to Cummings, I haven't seen in his words or in commentators words any anxiety about this. I haven't seen a commentary on what corrupting ideas have spread through our society that has led people to think of the old, sick and that ever-widening circle of UHPs. I hope that it won't turn out to be significant or a watershed moment. I fear that it might.