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Book review: The Fatal Breath: Covid-19 and society in Britain by David Vincent

12 January 2024

C of E folk might have something to add here, says Edward Dowler

DAVID VINCENT, Emeritus Professor of Social History at the Open University, has produced a wide-ranging survey of life in pandemic times, covering not only mainstream aspects of the situation, such as illness, death, and bereavement, but analysis of subjects such as consumer activity, mental health, and social intercourse in Covid times.

Although it is uncomfortable to revisit those difficult times, which now seem curiously like a dream, this is a readable and thoroughly researched account of different aspects of our societal response to the pandemic. This recent history is set alongside reflection on more distant pandemic responses that are assumed to be comparable to Covid, in particular the bubonic plague of 1665, as described by Daniel Defore in his 1722 Journal of the Plague Year.

Overall, Vincent’s message is that experiences were varied. For sure, there were some pretty big negatives, such as the tanking of the economy, a massive increase in domestic abuse, and thousands of years lost in children’s education. But, in Vincent’s view, there were also positives: for example, the increased silence of lockdown meant that “you could hear litter scuffing down the empty streets”; and the “clap for carers” appeared to show an enhanced sense of community.

Vincent’s surely correct contention is that a significant effect of the pandemic was to intensify and speed up social developments that would have occurred anyway, such as widespread dependence on foodbanks and the increasing recourse to “direct cremations” without any form of funeral service.

He considers the extent to which “successful imposition of quarantine regulations . . . was dependent on the devices and applications of social media”. Indeed, one could question whether the whole regime of lockdowns and other “non-pharmaceutical interventions” would have even have been possible if the citizenry had not been lulled into compliance by the ability to connect with friends, work colleagues, and fellow worshippers via Zoom, to entertain themselves on Netflix, and to cheer themselves up with Amazon purchases.

We await the conclusions of the official Covid inquiry, which may or may not be illuminating, but Vincent is already sure that he knows where the blame lies. The late imposition of lockdowns was a “political failing”, and Boris Johnson’s government “fatally hesitated” to make this key decision, “worsening the pandemic by its slow and often misjudged reaction”. Warnings by the ever forensic Lord Sumption about the erosion of civil liberties, expansion of police powers, and increasing surveillance are dismissed as “excitable”. In contrast, the more restrictive actions of the Scottish government receive high praise: “the best approach as so often with Covid-19 was that adopted north of the border.”

AlamySign — “Church Closed until further notice” — pinned to the door of St James’s, Upper Wield, Hampshire, in a photo taken on Easter Wednes­day in 2020, after the directive was issued to the clergy to keep their churches closed

When it comes to the Church’s response, there is thinly veiled derision for what Vincent sees as outdated theological frameworks for understanding past pandemics, and for historical attempts to deal with them through practices such as prayer, fasting, and holding processions. One may have some sympathy for this analysis, but Vincent’s apparently unbridled confidence in the power of big government to take decisive action to suppress pandemics successfully is, itself, perhaps more of a belief system than he admits.

Vincent’s somewhat withering judgement is that “the Church of England found itself largely marginalised in the crisis.” He notes, however, the deep effects of the loss of mourning rituals, of the impossibility of visiting the sick, and, most of all, of the decision — later officially regretted — to close all the parish churches. “I feel as though I have abandoned my people in their time of need,” wrote one priest at the time.

Vincent commends the fact that “by and large, the national church in England and Wales proved itself adaptable to the systems imposed by the state.” Not all will be clear that this was an unreservedly positive development. Time for the Church to do a “lessons-learned” review, perhaps, before the next pandemic?

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.

The Fatal Breath: Covid-19 and society in Britain
David Vincent
Polity £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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