The Masque of the Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death

Who are you planning to kill this Christmas? Is there an aged aunt who you haven’t seen for a while? Perhaps your parents? If you’re young enough, maybe you have your grandparents in your sights. After all, it is the time to spread peace, goodwill and Covid-19 to all mankind.

But, I hear you protest, you have no intention of spreading any disease and you would be horrified to think that you might. Of course you don’t and of course you would be.  

And that’s the problem. Bar a few maniacs, everyone has good intentions. No one thinks they are a risk. But all of us, me included, to some extent are.  

Were we approaching matters rationally, no one would be planning a major weeklong relaxation of anti-pandemic measures in late December just now.  The latest figures in England in particular are at best grim. Rates are levelling off in some of the worst hit regions, but at a high level, and rising rapidly in the southeasternmost regions.  It doesn’t look like a time for a general easing off of precautions.

Gathering large groups of people together, whether concurrently or in quick succession, indoors for hours at a time in small unventilated rooms is pretty well everything we’ve been told for months not to do. It’s a recipe for disaster.

If you want to see what’s at stake, look at South Dakota which has done everything wrong. The number of Covid-19 deaths reported on Friday was more than the median number of flu deaths per year over the last decade.  There is no guarantee that we are through the worst of this yet.

We – and by we, I mean the British public – are not approaching these matters rationally. We’re thoroughly fed up and disheartened. 2020 has been an absolutely rubbish year for most of us and we want a break. The public is planning what it imagines are modest celebrations. The public is, on this, crackers.

It is easy to be critical of the government (and I will be, before long), but on this matter the public at large have to shoulder the blame. We all know how Covid-19 spreads. We all know the risks. And far too many of us are getting set to ignore them for no good reason.

This leaves the government with an invidious choice. Does it seek to continue to enforce the rules and see them being widely flouted by otherwise law-abiding citizens, bringing them into disrepute? Or does Britannia waive the rules for a while, give up and prepare to see the morgues fill at an accelerating rate in January?

A government with a better track record of following its own rules might have attempted the first option, appealing to the public’s sense of duty and offering an opportunity for national celebration after the vaccine had been widely distributed – after all, the end is in sight. It was not an option for this government (and Boris Johnson, who is congenitally incapable of commanding rather than pandering, would not have considered it).

So the government is giving up on its health messages for a while, in order to protect their public support in the longer term, making the grim calculation that accepting more deaths in January through laxness in December is justified by eventually saving more lives in February, March and April with better compliance in the New Year.  It’s hard, however, to see how it is now going to be able to enforce its rules rigorously before or after Christmas either. And so the Covid-19 rates and the death toll will rise still further.

So enjoy those Christmas gatherings you are planning. But this year the idea of a self-indulgent Christmas takes on a new meaning.

Alastair Meeks

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