‘Keep calm and carry on’ may not work in a time of pandemic

By Peter S. Goodman

During a recent visit to a private London hospital, I was horrified to encounter a delivery man wheeling in a load of supplies without wearing a face mask. An orderly in blue scrubs stood inside the elevator, 3 feet from me, with his mask draped around his chin.

The scene at the hospital may present an especially shocking example of the casual way in which many people in London continue to confront a pandemic that has killed more than 57,000 Britons, but it is hardly unusual.

Coronavirus cases are again increasing rapidly, yet shoppers routinely wander the aisles of the supermarket in our North London neighborhood, Hampstead, without wearing masks. Cafes and pubs are full of people hoisting drinks in proximity.

When I asked the proprietor of our local indoor fruit and vegetable market why, despite regulations mandating masks, he was allowing unlimited numbers of people to enter his narrow premises absent protection, he gruffly waved me away.

“We’re not the police,” he said.

Every morning, I take my children to school on the public bus, where the 14-passenger limit is routinely breached along with face mask rules. We angle for a spot near an open window.

At our international school, the children must wear masks. But as I walk home through the leafy streets, I see children and parents chatting jovially without masks as they await the opening of their school gates. They look like people lining up to board the Titanic.

Beyond the obvious ways that this cavalier behavior is disconcerting, it has enhanced a widely shared sense that Britain — famously rule-abiding — is now operating without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents in a recent survey declaring the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, up from 39% in May.

The modern Britain that we learn about in history lessons supposedly displayed its truest character during World War II, when Winston Churchill exhorted the nation to persevere in the face of the Blitz, the relentless German bombing campaign. People pulled together and endured in a collective effort whose inconveniences and indignities were borne as the cost of defeating the enemy.

“The government issued thirty-five million gas masks to civilians, who carried them to work and church, and kept them at their bedsides,” writes Erik Larson in his history of the Blitz, “The Splendid and the Vile.” “Strict blackout rules so darkened the streets of the city that it became nearly impossible to recognize a visitor at a train station after dark.”

How did that society turn into this one? Or is society more or less the same, while the nature of the menace has changed, triggering a different response?

People with long memories counsel against using romanticized depictions of the past as jumping-off points for lamenting supposed decline.

“To quote a Russian proverb, ‘It was a long time ago, and it wasn’t true anyway,’” said Timothy Garton Ash, a European historian at the University of Oxford. “If you look at the real history of the Blitz, it wasn’t that wonderful national stereotype of people with bowler hats and rolled umbrellas patiently waiting in queues for cups of tea.”

Not everyone was so cooperative or resigned, he said, with differences in discipline from place to place.

The current crisis seems exacerbated by an offshoot of the very virtue celebrated in the conventional historical narrative — an admirable refusal to bend. The national mantra, “keep calm and carry on,” seems to have been reconfigured into the misguided notion that nothing is amiss.

“There is a sense of bravado, and not being a wimp about illness, and you can just soldier through it,” said Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian novelist who lives in North London. “There is this idea of, ‘Don’t be a wuss, man up, get on with it.’”

Preventing transmission of the virus requires behavior that feels rude: not holding doors for fear of getting too close to other people; wearing masks that obscure smiles; avoiding unnecessary interactions. This feels more poignant in England, given the degree to which social discourse is governed by manners and ritual. Forgoing small talk with the butcher feels uncomfortable.

Other cultural features may protect the populace.

“England is the only place I know where the better people know each other, the less physical contact they have,” Garton Ash said.

But that sense of remove may make it even harder for people here to follow the strictures imposed to halt the virus. In what amounts to both a stereotype and an observable truth, many English people require the aid of lubrication to bond with others. This means that closing pubs amounts to a revocation of basic human connection.

When my family moved to London from New York in 2016, we were immediately struck by how tightly regulated everything seemed to be.

In place of the crumbling New York subway, we encountered well-functioning facilities overseen by uniformed people who were pleasantly available for counsel. The post office was not an ordeal. Heathrow Airport was a marvel of efficiency. Competent people appeared to be in charge.

The first alteration to this impression came courtesy of Brexit, Britain’s bewildering, torturous (and continuing!) abandonment of the European Union.

In the face of warnings from business groups that Brexit amounted to an elaborate act of self harm, and despite an entirely anticipated slowdown in the economy, the political class carried on, tangling itself in arcane parliamentary procedure, while never fully resolving the question of what comes next. The word “shambolic” got a heavy workout.

The experience divided the country into two warring tribes — Leavers and Remainers — a polarized state in which facts relating to nearly any subject, from health care to foreign policy, were reduced to props in arguments over Brexit.

This legacy of distrust endured as the pandemic emerged in Britain, now led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose predilection for stagecraft over substance frequently draws comparisons to President Donald Trump.

My family reluctantly canceled our daughter’s 8th birthday party — an outdoor get-together with a half-dozen kids from school — because of new prohibitions against gatherings larger than six. That would seem a legitimate sacrifice, were it not for the fact that we could legally expose ourselves to scores of strangers inside a restaurant.

One event yielded profound cynicism: the brazen flouting of the lockdown by Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who was caught driving more than 200 miles to visit his parents during the worst of the pandemic, followed by a journey to a scenic country town. His elaborate and evolving explanations — one centered on using the drive as a chance to test his eyesight — were widely dismissed as preposterous.

Despite strident calls for his resignation, Cummings remained, supported by Johnson. It was as if Churchill’s right-hand man had been caught hosting a barbecue during a nighttime German bombing raid, flipping on the lights to illuminate the garden.

The results of all this — the sense of hypocrisy, the confusion, the muddled messages — may account for why many people are flouting the rules.

“This is a time when you really need government to step up and be very clear with its messaging,” said Dabbagh, the novelist. ”I think people would respond to messages if they were clear. Now, it’s all being pushed onto the individual to make these decisions.”

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