In Praise of Unherd’s Coverage of Lockdown

According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.

The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).

But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd. Unherd’s approach is deceptively simple and effective. They seek to give voice to views that one normally wouldn’t come across while also challenging ideas that have unquestioningly become de rigueur. There isn’t a single “line” that all their writers follow, even though there is a broadly (though by no means monolithically) post-liberal flavour to their authors and their contributions.

Here have been some of the pieces I have appreciated from the Unherd team on the subject of the Covid-19 lockdown.

To begin with, I have been immensely challenged by Freddie Sayers’ interviews for UnherdTV. For those who’ve missed it, Sayers has interviewed various kinds of scientists who differ on their approaches to the virus. He has written all of this up in a provocative piece that explores the different worldviews that underlie the various public health recommendations. He’s interviewed Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke who with bluntness and brevity advocates a policy of protecting the old and frail, while allowing social distancing measures for the rest of the population. He has also spoken with Neil Ferguson, one of the scientists responsible for Imperial’s Covid-19 report which has heavily influenced the strategy of the UK government thus far. Perhaps somewhere in between these two figures (at least in terms of the IFR or Infection Fatality Rate he has reached) is the German virologist Hendrik Streeck. He suggests that lockdown measures were introduced too soon and that, because the virus is endemic, we need to think about how we can live with it in the medium to long-term.

Tom Chivers offers a position that looks more favourably upon the lockdown. His piece today (Is the Lockdown doing more harm than good?) contains his usual combination of epistemological humility and careful reasoning. Chivers is broadly behind the lockdown now and in the near-future (“It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to”) but is open-eyed to the deaths and death-like existence for many suffering from unemployment and mental-health conditions. “Lockdown is coming at a cost”, he rightly asserts. It’s one of the more open-eyed pieces that backs the lockdown policy. Also in its favour is the emphasis on the uncertainty about our conclusions because of the lack of data (which, he stresses, isn’t the same as saying that we have no data). As he writes:

In short, we need to work out what the cost of the virus would be, if left unchecked; then we have to work out what the cost of our response to it would be; and then use those two factors to decide whether the lockdown is worth the cost. The trouble is, we don’t know either of those things

The one potential blindspot in Chivers’ piece is the lack of discussion around herd immunity, which I would have liked to hear more him speak more about (no doubt he has elsewhere). To be fair, it seems we don’t know enough yet to say how the virus will interact when we come out of lockdown and, in the absence of mass testing and tracing, whether or not one becomes immune having had the virus.

In addition to covering the lockdown, UnHerd has also featured articles that touch on a wider set of issues raised by the pandemic. In this vein, two pieces have provided some much needed realism surrounding our cultural attitudes towards risk and death.

With her characteristically dry humour and wry take on things, Timandra Harkness discusses the need for us to consider risk when it comes to our approach to lockdown. She questions whether the government should have spoken more of risk mitigation rather than risk elimination. She writes,

we would have done better to talk about Covid-19 more like road accidents, as a risk that can’t be eliminated altogether, but can be mitigated. Instead, the Government invoked the language of existential threat, in the face of which no measure is too great. Now, weighing the risks of resuming more normal life against the risks of continuing in suspended animation, they are struggling to coax a fearful population out of lockdown.

Instead of trying to frighten us all into staying at home, the Government should have harnessed our altruism, inviting us to join a grown-up conversation about risk. That would have left the door open to invite us all, now, to weigh the risk of Covid-19 against the lost opportunities of continuing to hide from the world.

Of course, there is a risk, to use that word again, that with all of this talk of quantification and QALYS (the measurement used to determine the value of a life) we become bean counters of souls. Giles Fraser wisely warns us about this approach. And yet, when push comes to shove, difficult decisions need to be made about whose lives are saved. If this seems cold and utilitarian, perhaps even libertarian, then we need to remind ourselves that the UK government is not, as is often asserted, simply trying to balance human lives and the economy. Chivers cautions against this comparison.

It’s really important, by the way, that we don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it is “the economy” vs “human life”. The economy consists of people’s lives, in a very direct way: if you stop people working, you make their lives worse; their businesses go under, they fall behind on rent or mortgages, they can’t afford to buy the things they want or need.

From attitudes to risk, we turn, lastly, to conceptions of death, where Mary Harrington makes a very important contribution. Harrington takes to task the implicit assumption among high-income societies that “everyone will live forever”. The title of Harrington’s piece, “Not Every Death is Tragic”, is rather unfortunate and I imagine will cause many not to read it. I’d recommend not making that mistake. It is a provocative read, but the title has little bearing to the article which is a sensitive, personal and realistic take on death. Her point about herd immunity is interesting and one wonders if this should be the way forward (“Unless a vaccine is discovered, any relaxation of lockdown will result in a new spike in infections, followed by further lockdowns, and so on until we reach — yes — herd immunity”). Perhaps less controversially, Harrington also discusses the fact that in less affluent societies where “death is already a familiar presence, the risk calculus of virus transmission looks very different”. This point has been repeated elsewhere in discussions of a “white collar quarantine” (and I discussed it in this piece over a month ago). Harrington’s comparative point is one that resonates with me, having spoken with family living in middle-income countries outside of Europe, as well as with friends working in blue collar jobs here in the UK.

Harrington delivers some hard-hitting truths on the way we as a society think about death (“our culture treats death as abnormal, even outrageous — not the inevitable fact it still is”). I suppose the only thing I would add is that while inevitable, death for the Christian does not have the last word (see my reflection on hopeful realism here). Regardless of whether it is someone dying at the peak of their powers, or after a long life, death is not how things should be, though we recognise that it is how things in reality are. It is something that we will all go through. Setting semantics aside, Harrington’s piece implicitly reminds us that we might wish to reconsider recovering a common vocabulary for speaking about death that draws on religious traditions in general, and Christianity in particular. I, for one, would welcome this re-development in our public discourse.

Hopeful Realism: Night Reflection for Compline (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm (http://jyotiartashram.blogspot.com/2007/10/sign-of-jonas.html)

Night Reflection for Compline, Trinity College Chapel via Zoom (Easter Season in Coronatide). Weds 6th May 2020

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

In times like these, death seems to be omnipresent. We knew it’s name before, of course. But in these days of Corona-tide, as some have taken to calling this season, we know with greater clarity the painful reality of death. There’s no mistaking the long, dark shadow it has cast over our nation’s public life.

In the UK, during the month of April alone, 25,000 souls were lost to the coronavirus. Just last week, in a single day 600 died of Covid-19—in a one 24-hour period, what is equivalent to a medium sized Cambridge college lost to the ravages of this horrible pandemic. 

It is no surprise that in times such as these, our assumptions about that most basic reality of our existence—death—are laid bare. 

In some of us is revealed a strong and persistent fatalism; call it pessimism, cynicism, or stoicism. We resign ourselves to death. To the fatalist, death is the natural end of life, the point at which our existence runs its logical course. Nothing else is to be said or done as death has the final word.

For others of us, it isn’t fatalism but idealism that characterises our response to this pandemic. Death seems everywhere present, and yet we would rather not talk about it. As late-moderns so used to the idea of being in control of our destinies, we run a million miles from death. We prefer to laugh it off. In disparagement, we refer to those with any kind of interest in facing their own mortality as “morbid”. 

And yet into the fatalism and idealism of our own hearts, our scripture tonight counters with two assertions of its own. Death is real. Christ has been raised. 

Hear these words again from tonight’s reading:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

For the Christian, death is a topic that is very much on the table. Of all the major world religions, it is only Christianity that has God in Jesus Christ take on mortal, vulnerable, corruptible flesh and die. As our creeds state: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried. He descended to the dead”. I am reminded of my family in rural Northern Ireland who, as per custom, included in their most recent phone call “update”, the news of those who in the local town had died recently. Here, I thought to myself, is a community that is honest about the reality of death. The Christian faith does not shy away from our mortality. Death isn’t something we laugh off, or shut our ears and eyes to in reckless idealism. But nor is it something we fatalistically ascribe to the natural course of a life. In the face of death, the Christian exclaims, “how long O Lord?” This is emphatically not how it should be!

But our scripture this evening makes a second, far more remarkable counter-assertion. Yes death is real. But we also believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and we who trust in him will be raised as well. This is no lame attempt at emotional uplift, or a vague offer of bodyless, paradisal bliss. No, our text declares that God in Christ has given birth to a new world; he has literally birthed us anew. The language of giving birth in early Christianity held apocalyptic resonance—apocalyptic in the sense of a revealing, an unveiling. In raising Christ from the dead, in vindicating him, God unveils a new creation in which we are beginning to participate and which will be brought to full completion in the last time. 

But until then, we grieve and lament the loss of life. We are honest and realistic about the reality of death. But we do not grieve as those without hope. We are neither fatalistic nor idealistic, but realistic. And we are hopefully realistic. For we have the greatest hope of all—that Christ has defeated death in giving up his own life for us and in being raised victorious. Ours is a hopeful realism that neither idealistically turns a blind eye to death nor cynically scoffs at the living hope achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Yes, death will do its worst. But Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and we will be too. Do we dare entrust our lives, and our deaths to him? Perhaps the better question is, how could we do otherwise? 

Amen. 

CovidDiary Day 4 (Tues 24th March 2020)

Remembering…

I have a hard time remembering the past.

Which is a pretty embarrassing thing to confess for someone who loves history.

And I’m not talking about the voyages of St Paul, or the life of Perpetua and Felicitas or the intrigue of the Elizabethan court.

I mean the things that happened today. And not even the things that happened around the globe on this day…but the events in my own life.

I have a hard time remembering.

Remembering is one of those virtues that could just make a comeback in these times.

The push and pull of the daily grind, or routine as we may call it, seem at one level to work against the practice of remembering. I so easily attend to, long for, have my gaze turned by novel things because, well, my attention is naturally drawn to new and interesting things.

And don’t get me wrong. We’ll need novelty in the days, weeks, months ahead. To keep us going. New friendships forged in the fires of the plague. New talents and skills we never thought we had, exercised for the common good. Even new cultural experiences—new music, poetry, literature, art, opera, TV, film—that will inspire and move us and draw us together as a nation.

But I also hope to remember. And remember to hope.

I hope to remember the gifts in my life: of family, a roof over my head, of friends, of good food and drink, of faith. Some, admittedly not all of us, will become more intimately aware of these ordinary, everyday things. The French use the word quotidian which often has connotations of mundanity, what North American priest Eugene Peterson called the “unglamorous ordinary“.

Yes, the weeks ahead will, for some, be the most stressful and busy on record. I feel a duty to try and contribute to efforts to ease this burden. At the same time, for those of us working from home, we can’t duck the fact that there will simply be more time to reacquaint ourselves with the unglamorous ordinary once more.

Again: novelty is good. But, dare I say it, novelty can quickly turn stale. The novelty of the current situation will wear off (if it hasn’t already). Which I admit is hardly a helpful way to look at a global pandemic, and betrays a good deal of privilege; but it is one I’ve entertained in all honesty. We only have to contemplate being indoors for long periods to realise that this will get tiresome, stuffy and stale.

Novelty has us focus on the next thing. It’s inherently future-oriented in that respect. Technology (and social media in particular) has us positively hooked on the novel. I focus on the next big thing. The new episode. The new game. The new Twitter post. And so on.

Remembering is different. The practice of remembering will root us in the present by helping us call to mind the past. If it isn’t greedily craving the next thing on the horizon, it also isn’t over-sentimentally longing for an ephemeral golden age. Remembrance, I am glad to say, is realistic. It’s tangible. Unlike sentimentality—where the object in view is distorted into something it never was—with remembering we can point to a specific act at a specific time.

At the root of any good practice of remembrance is attentiveness and gratitude; attending to what has happened this day and giving thanks to God for his gifts and, where needed, repenting of my failure to use them or to appreciate them.

And when I attend to these experiences, when I call to mind the beautiful flower bed, the struggles of a friend, the conversations with loved ones, the impatient word I spoke, the forgiveness offered to me by a close one, then I am able to give thanks, say sorry and grow.

A verse from the Psalms in the lectionary has imprinted itself on my memory this week, and fittingly, it has to do with memory. I quote it in the KJV as I find the novelty (that word again) of the old language causes me to read more slowly and attentively; it’s just more memorable:

I will remember the works of the Lord: and call to mind thy wonders of old time. I will think also of all thy works: and my talking shall be of thy doings. Psalm 77:11-12

[EDIT: I have only now seen that Exodus 2 was part of this day’s liturgy; this evocative passage, which tells of Moses’s rescue and ends with God’s concern for his people, adds a new dimension to remembering: we remember God’s acts and give thanks but God also remembers his covenant to us. Ex 2:23-24 reads The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. We remember God because God first graciously remembers us]

God’s wonders of old time are a ballast for the present. The Psalmist talks of them continually. In such a way, I hope to remember.

I also remember to hope.

For remembrance stirs up hope. Because as we remember God’s faithfulness in the past, the way he has delivered us from trouble, death and all manner of circumstances and trials, we are reminded that we have a firm hope for the future. If remembrance is refreshingly realistic, it is also hugely hopeful. Hopeful in the sense of instilling a firm and reasonable confidence that God will continue to be faithful in his love to us, even in the midst of situations that test us to the limit.

How does this look practically? I am trying to develop some kind of routines to help memory (to function, that is, as aide-mémoires). At the moment, these consist of:

  1. Daily prayer: allowing the routine of the lectionary (of readings, prayers and responses) to form the desires of my heart and the words of my prayers as I remember God’s goodness and call on his mercy.
  2. Attending: going for a walk in the courts of the student village near where I live and enjoying the flowers and old buildings, taking the time to really soak these in.
  3. Working: work is a real source of comfort and satisfaction at this time and I don’t say that lightly as many struggle in the current climate. The structure of having set working hours is something I am also very grateful for.
  4. Sitting still: allowing myself moments (just brief seconds even) of holy distraction away from the news cycle and social media.
  5. Writing: constructing a piece of writing is a good way for me to pour my energies into one thing, one idea and hone it. It’s also satisfying to be putting something out there that hopefully benefits someone, even if that is just me. By doing so, I hope to remember the lessons I might have learned.

So yes, I find remembering hard. But I’m working on it…