Covid infection is, for most people, a rough few days. A side effect of mass containment could atrophy our humanity. Frances Coppola evaluates the prospects.

The fight against the coronavirus has been likened to a war. And indeed, the sort of measures that government is putting in place to slow down the spread of the virus are reminiscent of wartime: suspension of the rights of free moment and free association, internment of people suspected of having the virus, rationing of essential goods, new draconian powers for police. Some people resent these measures: refusing to curtail their normal activities, they talk of “standing up to” the virus and “not giving in”.

Standing up to a human enemy may well frighten him away, or at least give him pause for thought. Popular belligerence towards Hitler helped to foster a sense of standing together against a common foe that persists to this day. But viruses aren’t like human enemies. They aren’t interested in “winning”, in the sense of conquering a territory. And they don’t set out to kill you – that’s simply a side effect. Viruses have only one purpose, and that is to propagate themselves. This coronavirus does so by exploiting one of the most characteristic features of humans, namely our social nature. Infected people shed viruses, which are picked up by other people in the course of normal social contact. It’s a devastatingly successful strategy.

At present there is no effective treatment for coronavirus and no vaccine against it. The only way of defeating the enemy is to stop it propagating. But that means giving up part of what makes us human. No wonder people resist.

Policymakers are reassuring people that social restrictions will be short-lived. Boris Johnson talks about “getting this thing done” in twelve weeks. Donald Trump wants to see packed churches on Easter Sunday. Emergency support measures for businesses and people typically have a time limit of three months.

“The only way of defeating the enemy is to stop it propagating. But that means giving up part of what makes us human.”

But the Imperial College report into the virus’s trajectory said that restrictions on social contact would largely have to remain in place until a vaccine was available, which could take up to 18 months. Periodic slight loosenings during that time are supposed to provide relief from an extraordinarily repressive set of measures. But to have social contact restored briefly, then whipped away again, repeatedly – for how long will people tolerate this?

As the weeks become months, and the months become years, it will become increasingly hard to make the isolation stick. Governments might turn to ever more repressive measures to enforce isolation, as the Chinese authorities did in Wuhan. But some are already arguing that loss of freedom is a very high price to pay for the survival of a relatively small group of mainly old and sick individuals. At present, views like this are mainly confined to the libertarian weird fringe. But as time goes on, more and more people might come to think like this, and to say so – publicly.

But it might be possible to relax social isolation rules – under certain circumstances. Imagine a world in which mass testing is routine. For people to gain entry to places where they could come into contact with others – pubs, clubs, restaurants, churches, concert halls, shops, parks – they would have to produce an up-to-date test certificate showing they were Covid-19 negative.

This would make normal life possible for a lot of people, though with an overhead. But British healthcare being what it is, it seems likely that free testing would involve long waits and most people would pay to jump the queue. And there might be other people who miss out on regular testing because they have mental health issues, are homeless, travellers or don’t speak English well. There could be an underclass of people who were routinely cut off from normal life because they could not afford regular testing.

Like modern-day lepers, these people would be cut off from society. They would be unable to get employment, unable to buy food, unable to send their children to school, unable to obtain accommodation. The immigrants among them might find deportation preferable to this. But for British citizens, there would be no escape. After all, what other country would want to accept those whom the British people decides are too risky to be allowed to live a normal life?

Such exclusion would not necessarily be mandated by government. Indeed, government might have to provide homes and food for those affected. It might simply be imposed by shops to protect their customers, churches to protect their congregations, businesses to protect their workers. When the whole country is frightened of infection, those who are perceived as an infection risk could find it very hard to stay alive. Shunning is powerful.

“There could be an underclass of people who were routinely cut off from normal life because they could not afford regular testing.”

A vaccine that was free and universal could solve this problem. But there will be people who refuse it, just as there are those who refuse other vaccines. Would we be willing to impose drastic exclusion on people who refuse to allow themselves or their children to be vaccinated against Covid-19? Would shops, businesses, churches, parks and the like refuse entry to anyone who couldn’t produce a valid vaccination certificate?

The human cost of building such protective firewalls could be considerable – and not just for those on the outside. In his novel, The Caves of Steel, the great writer Isaac Asimov envisaged an Earth in which people lived their entire lives in giant steel complexes. They felt safe in their steel caves, and they could lead apparently normal lives, but they suffered from extreme agoraphobia. They simply could not tolerate seeing the sun or walking in the open air. Perhaps we, too, will become collectively too scared to leave our safe places.

Right now, though, we are headed down a different road, and that is the road towards long-term repression or, perhaps more accurately, distortion, of our social instincts. Virtual contact enables us to reach a far wider range of people than face-to-face contact, but it is an empty shadow of a face-to-face conversation, lacking the non-verbal cues that are such an important part of human communication. Virtual meetings are simultaneously both distant and intrusive to the point of voyeurism. Remote working is a serious intrusion on home life. And yet these things keep us safe while allowing us some semblance of normal life. Without these, lockdowns such as those currently in place in many countries would be intolerable.

People who are terrified of the virus and unconvinced of the efficacy of vaccines might opt to continue to live in a virtual world long after the crisis is over. Would we accommodate their nerves? Yes, possibly. As time drags on, and we forget what life before the virus was like, we could simply get used to lower levels of personal social contact.

“Perhaps we, too, will become collectively too scared to leave our safe places.”

Just as retreating into “safe spaces” behind a certificated firewall would diminish our freedom, so maintaining lower levels of personal social contact after the virus has passed would diminish our humanity. In The Naked Sun, the sequel to The Caves of Steel, Asimov imagines a world in which the few humans live alone on gigantic country estates, surrounded by an army of robots who cater for their every need. Unlike the humans of The Caves of Steel, they are not scared of the open air and the sun. Instead, they are terrified of each other. Personal contact with another human is unbearable for them. How far do we want our present isolation to take us?

Right now, those who refuse to curtail their social activities are not resisting the enemy, they are assisting it. And those in power who talk about “opening up” their economies while the virus is still actively propagating itself through the population are playing Russian Roulette with the people they represent. We don’t know how many people the virus would kill if it were allowed to propagate unchecked. But we are pretty sure the numbers would be high.

But the long-term cost of any extended shutdown may be even higher. For if fear of others becomes entrenched, and shunning, a way of life, we will have become less than human.

Frances Coppola

Frances is a writer and commentator on banking, finance and economics. Her blog Coppola Comment is widely read and her writing has featured on the Financial Times, City AM, The …

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