Read: The arbitrariness of Trump’s European travel ban
Each country’s response to coronavirus has been informed by its unique caseload, media architecture, appetite for state intervention, and the competence of its politicians. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been careful to foreground experts in public health. This week, he conducted a Q&A session with the deputy chief medical officer, covering basic topics such as symptoms and the importance of hand-washing. Despite this, there has been a persistent (and now-growing) drumbeat of discontent at the slowness of the government’s response. The former Conservative lawmaker Rory Stewart, now running for mayor of London, called for much more stringent measures at the start of the week, citing his experience with the Ebola crisis. The opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman, Jon Ashworth, last night asked if the government had placed too much emphasis on “behavioral science.”
At the same time, because this is Britain, pundits have been suggesting that this is another example of “Project Fear.” This phrase, popularized during the 2014 Scottish referendum, was used to denigrate the mainstream economic opinion that Scottish independence would harm Scotland’s economic growth. It was enthusiastically taken up by Brexiteers when forecasters made the same prediction about Britain leaving the European Union. The term appeals to a particular kind of British sensibility, one in which young people are “snowflakes,” and we need to return to the days when milkmen cheerily continued their rounds through the bombed-out rubble of London’s East End during the Second World War.
That mythology flatters older people in Britain, who see themselves as stoic and unruffled, immune to the excesses of a “nanny state” that wants to warn consumers about peanut packets containing nuts. (It is also, in the context of a pandemic, extremely dangerous. Older people are most at risk of dying from the coronavirus.) “I have discovered in conversation with the over-70s in my own family that *none* of them were rigorously following hand-washing protocols,” tweeted the palliative-care doctor Rachel Clarke. “‘Blitz spirit.’ ‘Overreaction.’ ‘The young today’ ... were phrases used.”
We can add to this antipathy another problem. Over the past two decades, as Islamic and far-right terrorism have led to occasional violence, the advice has been: Go about your daily life, free from fear, or the terrorists have won. After the financial crisis, the official advice was similar: Keep spending, keep traveling, keep living. Don’t let the economy seize up. British people began buying a poster bearing the jaunty slogan Keep calm and carry on, which supposedly derived from World War II. (Former Prime Minister David Cameron liked it so much, he had a version as a cutting board in his kitchen.)