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  • Alastair Cavendish

Signs of the Times

Updated: Apr 5

Although the pubs are closed, in the town where I live at least, some of the cafés have been allowed to stay open in a limited fashion. You cannot sit down and have a cup of coffee with a friend, of course. Such reckless conduct would be tantamount to attacking your grandmother with a croquet mallet. If you are lucky, however, you might be able to get something to take away. About half the cafés are open on this basis in this small seaside town, and it took me a while to work out which ones were permitted to continue trading, and why. I finally realised that, in line with the government’s obesity strategy, preference is given to vendors of large American children’s drinks made of sugar and whipped cream.


One of these places has a bright pink sign prominently displayed in the window, which announces: “Please do not enter if you show any symptoms of Covid 19, racism, or homophobia.” For weeks, I passed it with no reaction more dramatic than the type of snort Colonel Blimp was wont to emit when remarking that the regiment had gone to pot, but a few days ago, I happened to be passing when the proprietor, whom I know slightly, was outside.


“Can I come in if I have symptomless racism?” I enquired.


The proprietor gave me a look which signified blank incomprehension, a look I imagine she uses quite often.


“I am a racist,” I explained, “but I exhibit no symptoms of racism. No one would imagine to look at me that I nurse within my heart a poisonous hatred of the Walloons, a distinct ethnic group within Belgium. Given that my racism is symptomless, may I enter and purchase an overpriced latte?”


She was not the kind of woman who understands satire. She said that she thought racism was a bad thing, which at least seemed to be a rational foundation on which to build.


“I agree that racism is bad,” I told her. “You may disregard what I recently said about the Walloons. If there are any Walloons within, I am perfectly happy to clasp them by the hand and call them brother or sister, or both. My point is that the word “bad” can cover a multitude of meanings. A man with a bad cold is not necessarily a bad man. Racism and homophobia are moral failings. Covid 19 is a virus. Do you really think it is helpful to add to the prevailing climate of hysteria and censoriousness by conflating the two?”


The café owner is, of course, perfectly at liberty to display whatever signs she wishes, however fatuous, in the window of her establishment. I used to follow statements like this with the phrase “it’s a free country” but I can no longer do so with a straight face. In any event, I would not want to try to stop her from exercising whatever freedom of speech remains to us. I am fairly certain, however, that the statement on the sign does not really represent her views. If someone were to ask her, for instance, whether she thought that using a wheelchair is the same type of thing as being a bigot, I am fairly certain that she would say it is not.


Moral panic begets moral confusion. Some people have admittedly been stupid and reckless in their attitude to the coronavirus. Chief among these, perhaps, is the Prime Minister, who, a year ago, was blundering round hospitals cross contaminating every ward, then boasting about it on television, and encouraging others to follow his example. His conduct here was clearly immoral as well as ill-mannered. Speaking for myself, if I had been in one of those wards, I should have told the wretched egotist to keep his unwashed paw to himself. Most people, however, have nicer manners than I have, and would shake hands just to be polite. Johnson went around infecting people for the sake of his photo opportunity, then contracted the virus himself, using up valuable resources because he is a selfish cretin. His illness was directly attributable to his own moral turpitude. In the vast majority of cases, however, people who have caught the coronavirus were simply unlucky. They have done nothing wrong, and all the signs, posters, advertisements, and social media rants blaming them for their own misfortune are as wrongheaded as they are rude.


We never used to think like this. Influenza kills, but I have never once heard anyone trying to blame the death of a loved one on irresponsible flu-carriers. People who are normally courteous and rational suddenly become fountains of bile when referring to their fellow human beings as covidiots and plague rats. After a large Jewish wedding in New York last year, social media was overwhelmed with comments about “Jews spreading disease”. I really do try to avoid drawing parallels with Nazi Germany, but sometimes, they force you to it. What else can one say of such a barbaric remark?


Many aspects of a civilised society are intangible, fragile, and difficult to describe. When Westerners go to Asian countries, they are often charmed by the gesture of greeting called by various names, including namaste and wai, which involves pressing the palms of one’s hands together, as though in prayer. This is an acknowledgement that the person in front of you is not just a random assemblage of carbon atoms, or a machine that turns food into energy, or a vector of disease, but a spirit, a spark of divine fire. While we in the West lack this elegant greeting, the same idea is conveyed by a warm smile, eye contact, and a kindly word. If we lose this habit of courtesy, instead peering suspiciously over the top of a face-mask and wondering what germs everyone is carrying, we will not find that the old ways return quickly or easily.

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