Blaming the public

A picture of a public park with people spread out thinly in small numbers. In the background are some trees and there are blocks of flats on the hillside behind.
Brockwell Park, south London

Two weeks into the ‘lockdown’ imposed on us in mid-March, the government continues to reveal little at its daily evening press briefings. Last week I heard the slogan “only one thing worse than no test is a bad test” three times, and it started to sound a lot like an empty slogan. Other countries have used testing as a key part of the strategy to contain the Coronavirus; we test only those admitted to hospital with symptoms, and thus the numbers are likely to be a fraction of the real figures, with local figures skewed towards local authorities with major hospitals (hence the large showing for Lambeth and the tiny numbers in outer London boroughs like Kingston and Richmond). When questioned on the progress of approving tests, they kept talking about testing for front-line NHS staff rather than anyone else; they are not the only people at risk, as many others are dealing with members of the public who may be infected (bus drivers, for example; five of those have died in the last week or so) and millions more are deprived of their liberty and this may be without good reason.

In one of the briefings last week, one of the three participants noted that while public transport use had gone down, there had been a regrettable uptick in motor transport. Well … that is only to be expected, surely? As people using public transport who are not NHS nurses but who still cannot work from home get lectured on the radio by the mayor and even by certain BBC reporters, they might plump for the safest mode of transport available, if they have it. Are they assuming that people are taking frivolous drives or going to see friends, rather than going to work or get groceries or do other perfectly necessary tasks? Both the government and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, use the struggles of NHS staff and the deaths of bus drivers to rail at us for going out when it is their responsibility to make sure that their staff are protected.

Around the time the lockdown was imposed, Haras Rafiq of Quilliam (and previously the so-called Sufi Muslim Council) tweeted that “25% of all deaths in UK are Muslim elders as Muslims are not stopping from Mixing with their elderly and each other” and after receiving replies from Muslims, “It is a reflective of wider problem in community where people just aren’t giving a sh*t and ignoring advice that can save lives”. It’s well-known that many Muslims in the UK live in multi-generational households with grandparents under the same roof as their own children and grandchildren. Often these are small terraced houses. It’s difficult to avoid mixing in these sorts of situations; even the advice to those with medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to infection, to stay indoors and avoid being too close even to those one lives with, assumes that there is room to do this. If you are living in a cramped flat, keeping away from everyone is hard or impossible. It has been common to claim that Muslims have no regard for the law, and various rumours have circulated of mosques remaining open, even for communal prayers, after the lockdown was imposed. The truth is that many mosques closed on Muslims’ initiative before it was imposed.

I do wonder how many of those who have fallen ill in the past two weeks were infected by family members, not by people they met at work or otherwise out and about. This is especially true for those large families in cramped conditions. When people are told to stay in their houses or flats for 22 or 23 hours a day, if there is a family member who has the virus but is asymptomatic, the virus now has ample opportunity to infect the other family members, including older members who perhaps hadn’t got out much in the weeks or months previously and did not see much of the relative who has brought the virus back because they worked long hours or spent many of their nights “on the town”. We are not told who anyone got the virus from and it does not appear that any effort is being made to find out. We hear complaints about public transport or car use and a rising death toll and it is assumed that the reason is poor compliance or that the lockdown restrictions are not stringent enough, but some — perhaps many, as the lockdown continues — of those falling ill were infected by members of their household after lockdown.

One of the ugly traits this crisis has brought out in people is that of looking for faults in others and excuses to complain about others’ behaviour and social media has provided plenty of opportunities. A couple of weeks ago I saw someone suggest that many British people might like a version of old East Germany, with the Stasi but minus the free stuff, and this element have been well and truly out this past fortnight. On Saturday, for example, a couple of photographs circulated of people in Brockwell Park, a large park in south London that lies between Brixton and Herne Hill, amid a number of neighbourhoods where there are a lot of high-density housing blocks where people do not have private gardens, enjoying themselves on a sunny day and some of them were lying on the grass rather than walking or cycling or otherwise doing anything that could be called exercise. Those of us with gardens, of course, can sunbathe there. All the people pictured in Brockwell Park were in ones or twos and all were well spaced out from each other; we do not know how long the ‘sunbathers’ stayed lying on the grass and while against the rules, they were not actually putting anyone at risk. Figures circulated of 3,000 people being in the park, which as locals quickly pointed out, was a paltry number for such a huge park. On Sunday, some footage was posted on Twitter (with tags to attract the attention of the Sun and Mail Online) of people apparently violating the lockdown near Richmond Bridge. A few people were sitting on park benches and there was a guy playing a guitar. Surrey Police sent out tweets including the footage with the familiar “stay at home” message.

A close look at the footage shows that it is potentially misleading. It clearly lacks depth of field and makes the pedestrians look as though they are closer to each other, particularly closer to those in front of and behind them, than they really are. The footage consists of snippets of a second or two before it cuts to another scene, so again, we do not know how long people shown seated remained where they were. The path is in fact a public thoroughfare which avoids a busy road; the river at that point is a beauty spot and a tourist attraction, but people may well have been using it to get somewhere. The guy with the guitar clearly should not have been there, assuming this footage really was shot yesterday — we only have the author’s word on that, and I find the suggestion that someone would break the lockdown so blatantly quite staggering. Any time I have been out, mostly into Kingston town centre, I have found the place almost deserted: a few shops, all selling food and medicine, a couple of takeaways (a fraction of the total) and one market stall are open, often with reduced hours as a result of much reduced footfall. Kingston also has an attractive riverside and I did not see large numbers of people going there.

The people making the fuss about those seen sunbathing are acting like children eagerly pointing out the misdeeds of a classmate. The classmate is possibly doing something wrong and breaking a rule, but harming nobody, and the tell-tales get a buzz out of ‘righteously’ informing on a rule-breaker regardless of whether they made life any better for anyone. According to today’s figures, the rate of people being admitted to hospital for COVID-19 is slowing after two weeks of a fairly moderate lockdown (the death rate is still climbing; however, that reflects the infection rate of a week or two ago), yet every bout of finger-pointing and every distorted or compressed picture showing a couple of people lingering in the sun brings the spectre of a proper lockdown — a ban on any outside exercise, regardless of whether one has space for it at home or whether one’s home is clean or healthy (which may not be a choice) — that much closer. Who is the real “covidiot” — the person lying down on the grass, much more than the requisite two metres from anyone else, or the guy going round with a camera shooting misleading footage to sell to newspapers? Is that a good reason to be out? An essential occupation? Take your own advice, stay home (or get on with your exercise/shopping) and mind your own business.

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