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Corona Diaries: will a discreet rebellion be the thin end of the wedge?

May 9, 2020

The VE Day celebrations have been a welcome distraction for many of us in Britain. We’ve been busy looking back with a mixture of sadness and nostalgia back to an event that took place seventy-five years ago. The media has been interviewing veterans. Videos of school kids singing “We’ll Meet Again” are circulating. Across the country there’s been an abundance of flag-waving and socially distant street parties.

More than on any other day, in the streets and park near me I’ve noticed what you could describe as a quiet rebellion against the lockdown. There have been cars pulled up outside houses, presumably for discreet visits, and groups of people sunbathing in the park. So much for self-isolation and thirty minutes of exercise.

This leads me to think that with a population of sixty six million it would be very hard for the police to enforce the regulations if a sizeable slice of that population decided that enough is enough. Even an authoritarian state with armed police finds it hard to control a popular surge of civil disobedience.

My own limited experience of such an event came in 2011, when I was living in Bahrain. As the Arab Spring was in full tilt, demonstrators gathered at a major roundabout to protest against social and political inequity perpetuated by the regime. It quickly turned ugly. Police fired on some demonstrators nearby. Some died.

From then on what had started as a non-sectarian protest quickly turned on to a full-on campaign of civil disobedience by the Shia majority of the population against the Sunni minority – and specifically members of the royal family – that controlled the wealth and the political power in the country. For a while there was a stand-off as protesters went into permanent occupation of the Pearl Roundabout.

A Bahraini friend took me to the encampment. Each Shia village had its own tents, with cooks handing out free food. There was a clinic, exhibitions of pictures showing the unequal wealth distribution. Next to them, autopsy photos of the bodies of demonstrators who had been shot. In the middle of the roundabout was a stage, where people read poetry, performed makeshift plays and delivered political speeches. It was rather like a political Glastonbury.

It all ended one morning when a Saudi detachment of its National Guard came across the causeway between the two countries and assisted in the clearance of roundabout, guns at the ready to shoot anyone who resisted.

Bahrain is a small island. Much of the violence took place while we were listening from our apartment balcony two miles away. We could hear gunfire and ambulance sirens. Outside the apartment, funeral marches snaked through the streets.

For weeks afterwards we crossed patches of scorched tarmac on the main highways. In some areas you could see burning tyres as local protests continued.

Bahrain is a tiny country compared with Britain and America. Yet living though its period of turbulence showed me how quickly normal becomes abnormal. Nine years on, you could argue that both in both in the UK and the US the equality gap is wider than that in Bahrain at that time, even if the social fault lines are not based on religious belief.

We are now living though our own version of abnormal. In Britain, our little acts of civil disobedience are modest and barely noticeable. In America they’re more open and aggressive, as groups protest at the lockdown regulations and individuals gather in large numbers as if no regulations were in place.

The social discipline that largely held together during World War 2 did so because the threat was clear and visible. Also there was no dissent in the media, be it radio, newspapers or public information films. By and large, the people believed the government and supported the war effort, even if there were grumbles about the fairness of measures such as food rationing.

Things are vastly different in our new period of abnormal. Despite the efforts of the government and its sympathisers in the media to keep us on message, I sense that the barrage of off-message information we receive via the social media and public figures with axes to grind is beginning to fracture what started as widespread support for the lockdown.

If we get to the point where we don’t believe the science that the government is feeding us because we have seen other views that we think more credible, then public obedience is bound to fray. Also if we think the regulations defy common sense, we are more likely to follow our instincts rather than the government’s exhortations.

For example, is there a reason why we can buy plants in a DIY shop and not in a garden centre? Is there a reason why (as I mentioned yesterday) we can’t play golf, a sedate game that naturally lends itself to social distancing, yet we have to run for cover on our roads when a sweating jogger races past us? Is there a reason why we can’t entertain family members who aren’t living with us, so long as they stay in the garden and keep the prescribed distance from us, when family members get together in parks?

Equally, when the lockdown eases, will we be allowed to crowd on to tubes, trains and buses because it’s safe to do so, or is the government giving in to the lobby that believes in saving the economy more than saving lives?

Boris Johnson and his crew, being electioneers at heart, will know when he’s losing the public because opinion polls and focus groups will tell him so. If the government is to avoid further erosion of confidence, it will need to improve its communications. You can sloganize a lockdown fairly easily because the message is simple and uncompromising. But when we’re looking at more subtle gradations of freedom, it will become harder to encapsulate the new message in equally simple terms.

It will also need to come clean about its shortcomings, rather than give the impression that it’s constantly attempting to cover up for past mistakes and current problems. Though we’re only halfway up the Trump scale of obfuscation, getting public admissions of failure is like forcing blood out of a stone.

For some onlookers, the charade over the “100,000 tests a day by the end of April” may turn out to be the last straw, not because of the childish deceit in counting tests that had been sent but not carried out, but because of the limitations of the testing programme itself. It’s one thing having a stated capacity to test 100,000 people a day, but quite another matter if some of those tested have to wait for ten days to hear the result.

Nine years on, Bahrain still lives with the memory and, for some, the consequences of the unrest. There are still prisoners in jail for their part, real or perceived, in the events of 2011. All of us who survive this pandemic will have vivid memories of the experience. Many, like the survivors of 1939-1945, will know people who don’t make it through. What’s yet to be seen is whether Boris Johnson and Donald Trump allow their countries to slide into patches of anarchy because of incompetence, complacency or just bad luck.

Wherever we are on the curve, the next six months should provide the answer.

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