1m deaths and a debate tearing society apart

Great divide: How Covid-19 became “the new Brexit”

Is freedom more important than health? As fears of a second wave of the pandemic grow, a great chasm is developing between those who demand stronger measures and those who reject them.

The silver-haired TV interviewer could not contain his rage as he laid into Britain’s health minister outside the Houses of Parliament. “Nobody in the country knows what’s going on,” he thundered. “Nobody in there knows what’s going on, and YOU know nothing about what’s going on. The Cabinet’s at sea, the country’s at sea – we are a laughing stock.”

Jon Snow’s attack on Matt Hancock was filmed back in March, at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. But it has suddenly resurfaced, and attracted tens of thousands of likes on Twitter.

Why? Because, in barely 20 seconds, it sums up the anger and frustration felt by people right across the Western world. They are infuriated by the inability of those in authority to deal with the crisis, and the confusion that surrounds it.

They are also deeply divided about the best response, with some condemning government measures as too lax and others lambasting them as a threat to democracy.

In politics, central and local government officials are at each other’s throats. Officials in Madrid have refused the national government’s demands for a lockdown in the city, insisting that they are handling the situation “responsibly and with good judgement”. Councillors in Marseille are calling the closure of all its bars and restaurants on the Health Ministry’s recommendation “a catastrophe”.

Even within political parties there have been fierce arguments. Many British Conservative MPs have condemned Boris Johnson’s proposals for Draconian new restrictions, calling them an attack on civil liberties and a threat to the economy. Pundits are speculating that it could even mean the end of Johnson’s premiership.

The anger in the media is spelt out loud and clear in newspaper headlines. “Politics infected America's Covid-19 response. People are dying because of it,” declares one US paper. “DEADLY CHAOS,” shouts the UK Daily Mirror’s front page.

Students complain bitterly that they were encouraged to return to university, only to find themselves confined to their halls of residence. They are not able attend to tutorials but, equally, they are not allowed to return home – although the SOS messages displayed in their windows (“SEND BEER”) might still raise a wan smile.

Perhaps most worrying is the lack of consensus between the medical experts guiding government policy and the health workers on the front line. In Belgium, 588 doctors have signed an open letter condemning the official approach.

There is no real emergency, it argues: “We call for an end to all measures and ask for an immediate restoration of our normal democratic governance.”

The divide extends to families and generations. People with vulnerable relatives – particularly those in care homes – argue about what will or will not endanger them, and whether isolating them will do them more harm than good. Young people resent attempts to curb their social life.

The result is a schism that some are comparing to Brexit in the bitter divisions being created.

So, is freedom more important than health?

An open or shut case

Some say that, in a situation like this, it is not. The measures restricting movement and socialising are temporary, designed to deal with an extraordinarily contagious disease; nobody is suggesting that they should become permanent. It is perfectly normal for a government to assume extra powers in times of emergency; not to do so would be irresponsible.

Others argue that this is the thin end of the wedge. Once we become used to our liberty being curtailed, it will be easier for governments to impose other unjustified restrictions. Measures imposed without a vote in Parliament set a particularly dangerous precedent. Life involves risks – what is the point of it if we cannot meet our friends or move around as we please.

You Decide

  1. Could you live under the same roof as someone who held completely different political views to yours?
  2. How has your view of the world changed since the beginning of the pandemic?


  1. Draw a map of the world showing which countries have been worst affected by the pandemic.
  2. Songs have often helped people’s morale and brought them together in times of crisis. Write a coronavirus anthem to raise spirits across the globe.

Some People Say...

“I draw great consolation from the moral economy, made up of countless acts of kindness, mutual help and sheer shining altruism.”

Peter Hennessy (b.1947), English historian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 across the world is rising more steeply than ever. There are now more than 33 million; it took 38 days for the number to go from 5 million to 10 million, but only 18 days for it to go from 25 million to 30 million. The virus appears to be spreading much faster in India than elsewhere: at one point this month it reached 90,000 new cases a day. Some believe, however, that these figures mainly reflect the increase in testing.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether lockdowns do more harm than good. The Belgian doctors quote the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or other physical impairment”. They argue that the loneliness and economic suffering brought about by lockdowns lead to an increase in depression, anxiety, suicide, domestic violence and child abuse.

Word Watch

Careless. It is related to the word “slack”, and originally meant loose.
Criticising severely. It is a combination of two words, “lam” and “baste”, both meaning to thrash.
Extremely severe. Draco was a 7th-century BC legislator who drew up Athens’s first written laws that imposed the death penalty, even for minor offences such as stealing a cabbage.
Experts. In India, the word refers to Hindus with an extensive knowledge of Sanskrit, philosophy, religion and the law.
General agreement. It was originally a Latin word.
Open letter
A letter intended for the public as well as the specific person(s) to whom it is addressed. A famous example, “J’Accuse!”, was written in 1898 by the novelist Emile Zola to the president of France, defending an army officer falsely accused of treason in a case that divided the whole country.
A division into two sides. It comes from a Greek word meaning a crack.


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