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Brave New World?

by Lynda Goetz

I went skiing in the French Alps last week. Alright for some, I can hear you saying. Well, yes. There is no doubt that this is an expensive hobby at the best of times – and these are not the best of times. Quite honestly, had I known in July, when I booked this first foreign holiday in three years, that travelling abroad would be quite so much hassle, I may have thought twice about going. Perhaps this is the intention? Up to the last, I was naively optimistic about the extent to which Covid panic would still be producing countless authoritarian, irrational and constantly changing rules and regulations.

Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the doctor who first alerted the world to the Omicron variant at the end of November, has expressed her surprise at the “overreaction” to her discovery. As recently as last weekend, she reiterated her “lived experience” that this is a “mild disease” and is not resulting in many more hospitalisations, even though it is “highly transmissible”. Why then has not only our Prime Minister but the leaders and governments of many other countries reacted with alarm to this new variant and posed severe restrictions?

The answer to this question is not at all obvious. Is it because they do not want to have to answer accusations of complacency? Is it perhaps that having, in many cases, been slow to react initially they feel the need to be seen to be taking immediate and positive precautionary steps? Is it because our health services are all so inefficiently run that governments are terrified of health service meltdowns? Is it simply because, with all the testing, tracing and media reporting that is going on, the endemic nature of this virus has become highly visible to an already terrified populace, and governments around the world, whether authoritarian or populist, feel duty bound to "do something"? Or perhaps, it is that we live in an over-cautious age where the worst-case scenarios modelled by scientific advisors are preferred over the more optimistic models produced by other members of the scientific community? Or is it, as conspiracy theorists are suggesting, just another test to see how far governments can go in controlling a surprisingly-malleable and obedient electorate?

Whatever the answer, there is no doubt that all these regulations and controls make life more expensive and more difficult. As in all emergencies and wars throughout history, there are winners and losers in the current scenario and those who have a vested interest in its continuation. Testing and pharmaceutical companies are making a killing. Software designers are having a field day as it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate this strange new world without a smart phone. Even GPs would appear to be beneficiaries as they are paid, not only for each jab administered, but for routine health tests they have been told not to carry out. Losers appear to be almost all those with any health issues other than Covid (including, as the eminent oncologist, Karol Sikora, pointed out in an article in The Telegraph on 4th December, the tens of thousands of late or undiagnosed cancer cases); all those with mental health issues (including those who have taken the ultimate way out) exacerbated or even caused by the measures taken to deal with Covid; all those schoolchildren and students whose education has been severely compromised; the young in general whose future has been mortgaged for years hence to pay for measures taken and whose expected freedom to move around the world has been curtailed and compromised.

For the baby-boomers too, of course, life has been curtailed. Many feel anger about this. Is this really justified? This is the generation for whom life has been one long surf. Born after World War II, we have been largely unaffected by wars or serious crises. Work has been plentiful; social mobility easy; property and share prices have continued to rise (even if there were blips in the 70s and the 2008-9 Global Financial Crisis); increasing prosperity, access to education and better health outcomes taken for granted. And yet, amongst the privileged and intrepid skiers with whom I found myself last week, at least one expressed the deeply shocking view that this generation had had time “stolen” as a result of the pandemic and were particularly deserving of sympathy as they “had a limited number of years left”. An argument that as a percentage of a young child’s life the 18 months, now nearly two years, of pandemic restrictions represented a far greater and more damaging proportion, cut no ice. I was accused of “using statistics” and told that those children had a long future in front of them.

A long future they may have, but how will they have been affected and what is the price, financially and emotionally, they will be paying to allow the ‘Boomers’ and those above them to stay safe? Boomers have often been accused of being entitled. This argument on the ski slopes certainly showed that to be a not unreasonable accusation in some cases. We will not, on the whole, be bearing the long-term financial cost of this pandemic and whilst it might well be true that the mental health of many of those over 65 has been affected, as one survey reported recently, I rather doubt that those enjoying pre-Christmas off-piste skiing will be amongst them. What is certain is that those less-privileged will be increasingly unlikely to engage in travel if costs skyrocket* due to constant testing (unsurprisingly and not unreasonably, these tests are paid for by the travellers, not the government). The divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ will, once again, be widened.

The requirement to be the owner and constant carrier of a smart phone in order to ascertain and then fulfil the ever-changing criteria is also rather alarming, as is government control over legitimate movements. If one adds to this the continuing assault on the use of cash, Huxley’s dystopian world occupied by compliant “soma-using” inhabitants does not seem so fantastical. Perhaps I am just feeling rather jaded, or to use the more usual word of the times, stressed, by a five-day European holiday, which required three days of travel, hours of form-filling and testing, the best part of £400 extra and compliance with illogical rules (current French) which allow you to remove your mask at table but which require mask-wearing when moving in and out of or around that same room (the virus is not then spread at the table, but somehow is as you get up to walk to the buffet?)

I wonder what Aldous Huxley would have made of our brave new world.

*The cost of my pre-paid trip was increased by the price of a rapid antigen test at Heathrow (£35), which turned out to be useless as Switzerland had changed its regulations overnight (merely for transiting Geneva airport) to require a PCR test (£119 for a 3-hr turnaround); £150 for a hotel room at Heathrow, as there were no rapid PCR tests available in time for that day’s flight (in spite of having arrived five and a half hours before the flight departure), €25 for an antigen test in resort, as the UK changed its regulations during the week we were away and finally £40 for a self-administered PCR test within 48 hours of my return.



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