One of the reasons things have gone horribly wrong may be the PM’s tendency to anthropomorphise the virus.

I am sure many of you will have felt this as well, but I have been increasingly struck by how odd it has been for the government in general, and the Prime Minister in particular, to talk about the virus as if it were human – anthropomorphising it. This is something that all of us sometimes do to help us make sense of difficult things. We give them human characteristics. The wind is angry today – the sea seems troubled etc. etc.

Of course, in the distant Greek classical past that the Prime Minister loves so much many things even had their own gods. People anthropomorphised nearly everything by creating a responsible God. The sea, the sky, the rocks everything became a person/god. It helped to explain why things happened. A person/god was responsible.

During the first thousand years of the modern era monotheism rather quashed this approach by replacing all these different people/gods with one. Then the enlightenment found scientific explanations for the actions of wind, rain and disease. Science is good at providing explanations so we now know that there are reasons why the wind is high, the sea is heavy and the thunder is noisy..

However, in everyday life we often still give things the characteristics of people and that is what the Prime Minister has done with the virus.

After he was ill, I remember he called the virus a ‘mugger’. This tried to explain how someone feels when this virus comes out of the blue and bashes you hard. You don’t see muggers coming and you’re left feeling really done over. It’s not a bad analogy – but starting to think in this way could lead you to forget what a virus actually is.

If it were a person you could threaten it and maybe cow it by your threats into changing its behaviour.

I really think the Prime Minister has internalised this way of thinking about the virus -and it has led his policy astray. The idea of whacking a mole in localities was treating the virus as if it was furry creature that could indeed be whacked. And we have all discovered it was a bit more difficult than that.

But seeing the virus as a personal enemy to be vanquished led the Prime Minister to say probably the most stupid thing so far about opposing the virus. On July 19 he said in the Sunday Telegraph,

“I can’t abandon that tool (a second lockdown) any more than I would abandon a nuclear deterrent. But it is like a nuclear deterrent. I certainly don’t want to use it. And nor do I think we will be in that position again” [1]     

So this was the Prime Minister trying to find a way of reassuring Telegraph readers that he wasn’t going to create a national lockdown again. Reaching into his bag of analogies about beating the virus he comes up with nuclear war. It’s as if the threat of launching a nuclear strike against the virus would really scare it. Except, as I said at the time, the pushing of a button to start a nuclear war wouldn’t harm the virus, but it would certainly harm us. As I said on 22 July,

“Incidentally just when you thought it was not possible to scare people about the future to any greater extent, Sunday’s interview with the Telegraph, saw the Prime Minister ratchet up anxiety another notch. He referred to his having the capability to call another national lockdown as being similar to the possession of a nuclear deterrent. As if having a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of people is not scary enough – let’s bring up a nuclear war that would kill hundreds of millions.

And what does he mean by the metaphor? At some stage the country may need another national lockdown, and if he sees this as being similar to pushing the button for a nuclear launch – does that mean he is unlikely to do it? That might mean we would go into lockdown – as we did in March – a few weeks too late. Last time that cost us many lives.”

And now here we are, 3 months later, and the Prime Minister has pushed the button. Not wanting to lay waste to the population (hooray for that) but with this weird analogy still clearly in his mind – he delayed calling a lockdown. Because he didn’t want to do something that he wasn’t actually doing (initiating a nuclear strike), he delayed having a national lockdown.

The delay will cost lives.

Threatening the virus with a nuclear war didn’t work.

It wasn’t listening.

It isn’t a person.

You can’t scare it.

[1] Sunday Telegraph 19 July 2020