Intensive care taught Boris Johnson that society exists

Gudmund Hernes

Margaret Thatcher fought doggedly against what she saw as obdurate labor unions and a stagnant bureaucracy – the forces blocking growth with a wall of empty phrases about solidarity.

Famously stating “And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” In this atomized vision of society, individuals are like elementary particles. We must study them in order to understand how the world works.

Covid19 has shown the differences between individuals. The disease can strike us all, but consequences vary and the weakest face the greatest problems. Not just the old and frail, but those with low incomes like cashiers, bus drivers and nurse’s assistants. When the epidemic has to be fought by locking ourselves inside, living space becomes a class issue.

The lower your income, the less your square footage. For the homeless, mortality is high.

Then a small miracle happened. People are not stupid. They have seen who takes the brunt and who does the work. The epidemic has made the clear who the responders are. In the first instance, it was health workers, but also teachers, airline attendants, police and bus drivers. They face great risk and put others ahead of themselves. Many have died because of this, infected by patients and others in their charge. Yet many volunteer in countries at even greater risk. They know they can help, and they want to help. Not for financial gain, but out of a sense of responsibility.

Both the first responders’ brave work and everyone’s contribution to stopping the infection shows something else: society is more than a collection of atomized particles. More than that, the message is evident in messages from Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth.

With the characteristic haughtiness and condescension learned at boarding school, Boris continued shaking hands with everyone he met. He was infected and landed in intensive care. When he was discharged after having received care from foreign nurses in an underfunded NHS, he said, “I owe them my life”. With a clear reference to Thatcher he spoke about the task at hand: “We are going to do it, we are going to do it together. One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.”

He acknowledged that the virus does not affect Brits as single individuals, but challenges society as a functioning whole. Therefore, relations between people have to change, and we must recognize those risking their lives when delivering essential services.

Coming together to help others was also the message in Queen Elizabeth’s speech when she said:

“While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

So yes, society exists, even global society.

Published 22. April 2020

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