The Meaning of Boris Johnson’s Illness

His diagnosis with the coronavirus illustrates the paucity of the war metaphor we’ve all adopted in combatting the pandemic.

Boris Johnson, backlit by yellow light, stares straight into the camera.
Francesco Guidicini / Camera Pre​ss / Redux

Boris Johnson has the coronavirus. So does his health secretary. That means people close to both might have it. This includes the prime minister’s pregnant fiancée, anyone who works in 10 Downing Street or the Department of Health, and, well, Britain’s entire pandemic crisis-management team.

If we are fighting a war against the coronavirus, as we are told, the generals’ mess hall has just been mortared. While there aren’t any casualties, it remains unnerving nevertheless, raising troubling questions about Britain’s defenses: How was this allowed to happen, and what does this say about the country’s overall attitude toward testing and tracing?

But perhaps what it reveals most fundamentally is the paucity of the metaphor we’ve all so quickly adopted: that this is a war. It’s not. It’s a global pandemic—a medical challenge that demands scientific excellence, swiftness of action, smart government, and public cooperation. Our understanding of the challenge is not helped by describing South Korea, whose response has so far been the best, in war terms, as a kind of medical Wehrmacht attacking the coronavirus with blitzkrieg tactics. The government in Seoul is not on a war footing; it’s just been smarter than everybody else.

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting all nations and all classes of people. That’s what the news of Johnson’s infection illustrates. It is universal. Wars—at least today’s wars—are not universal. They affect different classes in different ways and are fought between nations or groups whose strengths and weaknesses are largely rooted in their industrial output, wealth, size, and manpower. The coronavirus doesn’t care about size or wealth. Its most potent adversary is boring, effective government.

Johnson broke the news that he had contracted the virus in a short clip released on social media this afternoon. “Hi folks,” he said. “I want to bring you up to speed on something that’s happening today.” The essence of his breezy message was one of reassurance. “Be in no doubt that I can continue, thanks to the wizardry of modern technology, to communicate with all my top team to lead the national fight-back against coronavirus.”

What he didn’t say was that the wizardry of modern technology couldn’t stop the leader of the sixth-biggest economy on Earth from contracting the virus he wants to lead the fight against. It didn’t stop him from boasting about shaking the hands of coronavirus patients only a few weeks ago. It didn’t manage to instill protective common sense early enough around some of the most important people in the country. Technology is the thing that will eventually clip the coronavirus’s wings, but it is also what gave it the ability to fly in the first place. Today’s world is global. Viruses spread quickly, because people move around the world quickly.

The universalism of this challenge, revealed in Johnson’s illness, is its most novel feature. There are few other day-to-day problems that cross the threshold of a prime minister’s home in such a direct way. Housing, transport, food, drink, life expectancy, education—all these things and more affect different classes in hugely different ways. Johnson and his children can be educated privately; those of the cleaners at 10 Downing Street cannot. Even health care in Britain, despite the country’s universal, socialized system, is not uniform. Johnson and his partner can choose to have their child delivered at a private hospital, something not many British citizens can do.

But biology is universal. Health-care systems such as Britain’s, though far from the perfect creatures their supporters often pretend, do at least recognize the universal nature of biology—that having a preexisting health condition is not a question of individual negligence, moral hazard, or any other market concept; it’s the lottery of life.

Pandemics like this one are one of the clearest examples of universality. The world will be able to live with it only in a few distinct ways: If it washes over everyone; if it is controlled by everyone; or if a vaccine is developed that returns the world to its divided norm, whereby those who can afford it are okay and those who cannot are not.

But right now, we’re in a moment of eye-opening universality. Each country needs every other country to get on top of the virus. And each country needs everyone within its borders to either not get it, get it slowly, or get vaccinated against it. Today, it is no good for the middle classes to stay indoors and away from the virus if the homeless and incarcerated have no way to self-quarantine, and the poor are forced to work and risk spreading the disease anyway.

This will not last forever. The inequity of life will return again very soon—even today, money is buying celebrities and the powerful tests that ordinary people find harder to come by. But for the next year or so, until we have a vaccine, we’re in this together or not at all. Including the prime minister.