We have an especially strict lock-down here in Spain, with even exercise banned, and of course one of the worst outbreaks anywhere so far. This creates a strange mixture of envy, smugness and slightly patronising concern when we see other places with pretty bad outbreaks but where people are still permitted such exotic treats as walking around outside.
We are envious because it might turn out that the exercise ban is not making a huge difference to contagion and that we just embraced this authoritarian repression unnecessarily. We are smug and patronising because our collective endurance of nation-wide house arrest may instead be a noble sacrifice that others will regret not making. It is a strange and slightly troubling sensation, but then I hardly need mention that - pretty much everything is strange and troubling right now. These ambiguous feelings do however reflect the bizarre phenomenon of collective dis-belief that swept across much of the world just behind the virus.
There was a whiplash sequence of days during which many of us seemed struck with some kind of collective idiocy, a joint refusal to take on board the evidence of our eyes and basic rationality: the people of China and northern Italy are not somehow different from us, not somehow separate or other in any relevant sense. Why would we or anyone have believed that the exact same scenes we saw unfolding there in February and early March were not coming to us? Why didn’t so many of our political leaders? Why didn’t we lock-down sooner?
I had a slight head start on taking this seriously, as a student at my university was among the first few dozen cases in Spain, so we began taking our classes online and shutting down one of our campuses a little before the rest of the country. But I also attended the huge Women’s Day march in Madrid on March 8th. I took part in the collective expulsion of the repulsive ‘centre-right’ Ciudadanos party when they tried to join the march (this has become something of an annual ritual). This involved a little bit of pushing and shoving in the middle of a large scrum of police, marchers and front-line politicians. Six days later we were locked down and for a while I was even wincing when I saw mass gatherings on TV, so quickly did we learn to recoil from human contact in public spaces.
So it’s not as if I was really far ahead of the curve but I did have the strange experience of talking with family and friends in the UK and USA as things were ramping up here, experiencing that dislocation as I heard their slightly flippant tone and their almost casual dismissal of the possibility of people being legally required to stay inside in the liberal Anglo-phone world. After all, Italy and Spain are just culturally more obedient, more subservient, so no wonder they accept being forced indoors, really more like the Chinese than us freedom loving Brits and Yanks!
I spent a few days as Cassandra, predicting doom for all and being disbelieved or at least not taken with full seriousness. I practised my thousand-yard stare and shared tales of my time in the shit to civilians who just couldn’t get it, man. And then, very rapidly, everyone was in the same position, and all I had was this exercise ban to distinguish my travails.
There were, I think, people in most places advocating for earlier lock-downs or, at least, stricter measures sooner. But it seemed at the time that this was mostly a political stance, a convenient line of attack for the political opponents of whoever was in charge - the British left attacked Boris Johnson while the Spanish far right attacked Pedro Sanchez in their usual ridiculous and inflammatory way, easy to ignore. There will surely be some kind of political reckoning down the road for the decisions taken in those bizarre, through-the-looking-glass days. But should we blame leaders for their tardiness?
In their defence, they were hardly alone in seeming not to take the threat seriously and not realising the merits of locking down earlier. And let’s not sugar-coat it, it would have been good to lock-down sooner. Yes, yes, there would have been even greater economic costs but hardly a drop in the ocean compared to the epic global depression we now face, plus the subsequent opening up might have been on the cards sooner and been easier if we had shutdown when there were only a handful of confirmed cases, rather than several thousand. Presumably public health experts would have done more sooner if they could have, even if they did not strongly advise earlier lock-downs in many cases, for whatever reason.
The real oddity is the disconnect between what we were seeing from Italy and China and what we were thinking about here. The prospect of shutting down was just too incomprehensible to process. Perhaps the mediated experience of other people’s lock-downs was somehow too much like a movie, unnervingly real but reassuringly virtual.
Scholars of Baudrillard and Debord might have more insights on this, because just as the first Gulf War ‘did not take place’ for most Americans, except as a cool show on CNN, it seems that for those few weeks and days, the Wuhan and Lombardy lock-downs were also not really happening for us, except as the latest dystopia-set prestige drama, just another spectacle.
And because so many of us failed, individually and collectively, to properly grasp the reality of the situation, we are inclined to excuse our leaders, at least to some extent - after all, we can quite easily empathise with their seemingly delayed reaction, even if we prefer to castigate those who also happen to be our political opponents.
Should we be so forgiving? Should we accept that we were all the blameless victims of the same joint delusion? Was this an act of collective idiocy, of social irrationality, for which no one should really be held responsible? Perhaps. But on the other hand, most of us are not in a position of power. Most of us do not have access to professional advice from experts in contagious disease or to the kinds of information that don’t make it into the public media. And hardly any of us are responsible for the basic security of entire populations.
We should not forget this in a rush to excuse politicians in the same way as we excuse ourselves for not taking this seriously enough early enough. One of the most basic functions of the state is to preserve the security and lives of its citizens, or at least enough of them to legitimate its power. Crisis-management is another fundamental state function and one of the most powerful justifications for the concentration of coercive power in a single organisation.
So is it really acceptable to forgive our leaders on the basis that acting sooner would have been politically difficult? It is very literally their main fucking job to take emergency decisions when this will save the lives of their citizens! Have we become so disgusted with our leaders that we don’t even expect to them to fulfil their most basic tasks, the most powerful argument for them even existing?
Perhaps we have, or perhaps we are still in shock, not unreasonably, still numb and confused and scared. But when the reckoning comes, the inquiries, investigations and commissions, we should be careful not to too lightly forgive those who should perhaps have resisted the collective disbelief that struck the rest of us, should have perhaps been braver and embraced the political risk in doing what was needed to save people’s lives.