“On hearing ill rumour that Londoners may soon be urged into their lodgings by Her Majesty’s men, I looked down upon the street to see a gaggle of Striplings making fair merry and, no doubt, spreading the Plague well about. Not a care had these rogues for the Health of their Elders.”
Samuel Pepys: Diaries ca.1665. Allegedly. But, it’s a Twitter spoof – Charles II was on the throne at the time and was unequivocally male. He (Pepys) could have written it, however.
The young are sometimes heedless to the point of asinine stupidity, in the hope of five seconds of Internet fame. A video went viral the other day of a young man – I think in the US – running his tongue over the contents of a supermarket shelf, giggling inanely into the phone camera, presumably to the delight of his companions – a new game, it would seem, for the feckless and unemployable. Personally, I hope he is found and locked up, but I doubt that a charge of attempted murder would stick. Reckless endangerment might be an option. Or bioterrorism (see update). A Times columnist suggested a kick up the ass. Yes. Repeatedly. Until the coccyx audibly fractures.
So, as King Solomon ruefully remarked, there’s nothing new under the sun, then. Here, lockdown is complete and I am snuggled cosily eight hundred metres above sea level in the Rhodopi mountains with a partner, a dog and a cat. Food enough to withstand the Siege of Constantinople, and a supermarket and pharmacy within falling over distance. Apart from a brisk visit out of doors for the beast to fertilise the landscape, all is well, as Mother Julian put it.
There are indeed hard times coming for some and in the last fortnight a paradigm shift of seismic magnitude has taken hold of the world as we have all become our brother’s keeper. And yet, this is the tip of a very large iceberg. The issue of privacy for example, is a battleground between freedom to be anonymous and the insidious reach of Big Brother. Facebook and Google have infinitely long memories; they can and do track my movements, preferences and indeed moods already. It’s a short step to highly sensitive health checking – a kind of Minority Report in pandemic times and, as we seek to stem the tide, various options for containment have presented themselves, from doing nothing to a full-on, invasive mental and physical privacy-invading lockdown. Yuval Harari again put on his prophetic hat in the Financial Times recently with the following excerpt, plus a few redactions of my own.
“The coronavirus crisis could be the battle for privacy’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually, in fact almost inevitably choose health. The soap police are at the moment just asking people to choose between privacy and health, perhaps soon they may actually demand it, including harsh penalties for non-compliance. This is, in fact, the very root of the problem. Because it is a false, Hobsonian choice. We can and should enjoy both privacy and health. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by empowering citizens. Some regimes will clearly find this harder than others and in the free world we tend to look rather disapprovingly if tanks rumble around our streets. In recent weeks, some of the most successful efforts to contain the epidemic were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public. The word ‘honest’ is underlined for a reason. Britain is “asking” for compliance. How much longer, then will non-compliance be tolerated? However, centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, as simply and forcefully as possible and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can and frequently will do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant one.“
It remains to be seen if good advice is heeded before the law steps in.