When no good options remain, we may only choose the least terrible

Lockdowns are shit.

That might seem like a ridiculously obvious thing to say, but there are those out there who seem to think that people exist who think of them as an extended holiday, a little jolly where we get to sit at home in our jammies all day watching Netflix, a chance to bunk off and collect that lovely, free government money, so it bears making this very simple point clear at the outset: lockdowns are fucking shit. They amplify inequality, damage mental health, place vulnerable people at risk, decimate businesses and isolate members of minority communities from the essential support networks on which they rely. They are so perniciously harmful that no one in their right mind would be suggesting any kind of lockdown, much less the strict nationwide lockdown so many are now calling for, if it wasn’t absolutely essential.

There are, of course, ways to mitigate the harms caused by lockdowns: locking down early enough and strictly enough that the duration is kept to an absolute minimum, providing adequate financial support to individuals and businesses affected by the measures, a comprehensive plan to provide distance or blended learning in the hope of minimising the deleterious effects on those in full-time education, effective test, trace and isolate programmes, and clear, honest communication designed to bring the public along with any unavoidable disruption to their lives, rights and freedoms. Not ripping the arse out of mental health provision for a full decade prior to the commencement of any such restrictions might also be helpful, but here we are.

The sad fact is, our government has singularly failed to adopt any of these mitigation strategies since the very start of this pandemic. Both the first and second lockdowns took place weeks after scientists were calling for them to be implemented. Financial support has been deliberately – maliciously, even – inadequate, with many people cut adrift from the limited help available, and the government having to be shamed into doing the bare fucking basics like feeding hungry children, on two separate occasions, by a footballer. Eat out to help out, the rush to reopen schools and universities, the steadfast unwillingness to close them again even after it became clear that they were a significant source of community transmission, the threats to ‘get back to work or lose your jobs’, the persistence with the tier system of local restrictions that scientists warned would be ineffective before it was introduced and which was later shown to be just that, the staggering, face-melting stupidity of the Christmas super-spreader event; this government has failed at every turn to protect the public from the virus, and to minimise the need for, and duration of, further lockdowns.

The situation with schools is particularly worrying. And again, before I go any further, let me be abundantly clear: school ‘closures’ are also shit. I used the word ‘closures’ in inverted commas because the reality is that the schools have never been ‘closed’. They have always been open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children, which is as it should be. But to keep them open to all students at this stage of the pandemic is an act of criminal negligence that will serve only to increase transmission and cause thousands more deaths.

Of course no one wants schools to close (or, more accurately, to move to distance learning for an extended period of time). My son, who is very vocally Not A Fan of school, would still rather be there than separated from his friends for months on end, learning from a computer in his bedroom. During the first lockdown, he became progressively more miserable and withdrawn, despite our best efforts to prevent this, and it was heartbreaking to see. He returned to physical school attendance in September, and from a social point of view, it was obviously a huge improvement. We took him back into a remote learning environment last November when it became clear that everything was starting to go very badly sideways again, and although we took this decision with his consent, he still fucking hates it. The thing is, however, he hates it considerably less than he would hate me or his mother, who both have underlying conditions, becoming seriously ill or dying.

Closing schools and universities now is a no-brainer. It’s a shitty, horrible option that is still considerably better than the shittier, even more horrible alternative.

We now stand at a precipice. A variant of Covid somewhere between 50 and 70% more transmissible than the original strain is now tearing across the country unchecked. The graph of confirmed infections is more or less a straight, vertical line and hospital admissions have already exceeded the level of the last peak in April. Due to a better understanding of the disease and greater awareness of how to treat it, the number of daily deaths hasn’t quite caught up to the horrendous levels of the first wave, but they’re not far off, and they will get there, whatever we do next. A full, strict, UK-wide lockdown will almost certainly be insufficient to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of last spring, and we could still reach the stage where the NHS is unable to treat some Covid patients, even with those measures in place. This will also have a knock-on effect to routine care and other critical care, causing an increase in excess ‘non-Covid’ deaths as a result.

The strain on NHS staff now is unimaginable. Many are off sick, either with Covid-19 or related exhaustion from having to work 80+ hours a week over an extended period to cover for their stricken colleagues. Some are reporting conditions akin to, or virtually identical to, PTSD, and beds, together with the human beings needed to staff those beds, are quickly running out. All of which is likely to create a domino effect that will claim tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives. This remains true even if we act now. Today.

If we do not act now, if we delay or prevaricate or dither for another moment, we risk this disease getting completely, irretrievably out of control. Every day we fail to act is another day where more than 50,000 people (that we know about) contract the virus. Given that, in most areas, you can only book a Covid test if you are displaying symptoms, the real number is almost certainly significantly higher. And with the R-rate well above 1, this 50,000 symptomatic cases will grow to 100,000 and beyond in a very short space of time. If the hospitalisations and deaths grow proportionately alongside that, we will be in a very dark place indeed.

We have a vaccine available. Two, in fact. That is the only good news to emerge out of any of this, but vaccines alone are not sufficient to prevent what undoubtedly awaits us should we fail to take the drastic action needed to reduce the unrestrained spread of this lethal new variant. The government must act now, in partnership with devolved administrations, to implement a full lockdown of the entire UK, to move schools and universities online, to ban most flights in or out of the country, to close all non-essential retail, hospitality and entertainment venues, and, crucially, to provide the support, financial or otherwise, needed for us to emerge safely at the other side when the vaccine rollout is complete.

It’s going to be shit because, as I think I mentioned, lockdowns are really, really fucking shit. But when you’re faced with an inescapable choice between a kick in the balls/minge (delete as appropriate) or a bullet in the head, all you can do is spread your legs, brace yourself, and look forward to the day when you’ve recovered from the damage in a way that would not be possible if you opted for the alternative.

Episode 20

Max talks about the US Election, the UK’s response to Covid-19 and the recent court ruling relating to trans healthcare. Contains frequent strong language.

Racism, bigotry and intolerance: America in the Joe Biden era

As the crowds took to the streets on Saturday to celebrate the demise of Donald Trump’s presidency, it was hard to not be swept along on the tidal wave of euphoria. Many of us, myself included, shed tears of relief for black, Latinx, Muslim, gay and trans Americans who have endured four years of torture at his hands.

A few commentators remarked that the victory party was akin to scenes witnessed in other countries when a dictator is overthrown, and with good reason. Trump ruled by executive order, by diktat, by decree. His rhetoric, whilst largely incoherent, was very deliberately designed to sow division, to endanger the lives of those he despises. He wrought chaos for his own ends, as any dictator would, and his removal from office can only be a cause for celebration.

In the cold light of day, however, as the jubilant masses return to their homes, this election once again reveals the ugly truth about the good ol’ US of A. Despite Biden’s margin of victory in both the popular vote and the electoral college, there’s simply no hiding from the fact that more than 70 million people left their homes on 3 November, headed down to a polling place, and proudly voted for more of the same.

70 million people looked back at the past four years – the division, the hate, the full-throated support for white supremacists, the violence, the unrest, the criminal, wilful mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis – and decided that, yes, they would like to see another four years of this carnage.

And that, for all his ills, cannot be laid at Trump’s door. Donald Trump did not make America racist. He didn’t even make America more racist than it already was. What he did was to embolden the bigots, to validate their hateful views on the largest possible stage, to tell them that it was ok to think terrible thoughts and to express them openly, because their President was with them all the way. And it bears pointing out he didn’t do so without warning. He first rose to power on the back of a promise to give voice to racist ideals, and just under half the country could not have been happier. That his presidency came immediately after eight years of the Obama administration provides a jarring contrast, but it shouldn’t be surprising given how many Americans loathed the idea of a black man in the White House. Donald Trump is the symptom, not the disease.

A look at the breakdown of 2020 voting by demographic tells a sobering tale. It is estimated by the University of California that, nationally, 57% of white people voted for Trump. Just less than 6 out of every 10 white Americans voted for a further four years of a presidency under which black people and other minorities lived in a state of more or less constant fear for their mental wellbeing, their physical safety, and even their lives. Figures from 2016 show that if only white men had been allowed to vote, Trump would have won in all but a couple of states. These statistics reflect badly on all of us, whether we voted for him or not. It’s simply not enough to say, “I didn’t vote for him so my conscience is clear,” and to do so is an abdication of responsibility.

For white liberals, Trump’s divisive language is unconscionable. We don’t like these brash, overt displays of racism because they make us uncomfortable. We rail against such distasteful public celebrations of white supremacy because they might force us to confront some unpalatable truths about ourselves. Like how often do we speak out about the structural, systemic racism from which we all have gained an advantage? How much noise do we make about the barriers faced by black people to education, to housing, to healthcare or to equal employment prospects? How willing are we to overlook racist jokes or comments from our friends and colleagues because we don’t want to have a difficult conversation? How readily do we examine the reasons why US prisons are disproportionately populated by young black men, often on relatively minor charges, while the young white man gets away with the brutal rape of an unconscious teenager because he has a better than average time in the 50m butterfly?

I saw a young black man interviewed on US cable news on Saturday evening, and he made the point that the street in which he stood, surrounded by gleeful revellers, was the same street in which he and his friends had recently protested the extrajudicial murder of people who looked like him. He went on to point out that those protests were considerably less well-attended than the joyful victory party unfolding around him.

Another interviewee, a black woman, made the point that in each of the key states in this election – Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan – the result was swung in Biden’s favour by majority black communities mobilising and voting in record numbers. White people were all too happy to celebrate Trump’s removal from office, but most of the hard work that went into making that happen was someone else’s.

This is, without doubt, the biggest challenge facing President Biden when he eventually takes office. A return to the pre-Trump days solves nothing for black people and other marginalised communities. Throughout the eight-year term of the USA’s first black president, unarmed black men were routinely murdered on America’s streets, often by police, and with near-inevitable impunity. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner – the list of names is virtually endless – young men or children murdered in cold blood for carrying a toy gun, selling cigarettes or being in possession of a faulty tail light.

There’s been a lot of talk over recent days about ‘reaching out’ to Trump voters and listening to their concerns, and honestly, this frightens me. Pete Buttigieg tweeted yesterday that we should call those people in our lives who voted for Trump and ‘remind them why we love and care about them’, as though it’s the responsibility of those affected by Trump’s evil policies to ease the pain of those who enabled their oppression. Others on both sides of the aisle have called for a new era of ‘bipartisanship’, even as Trump’s minions and acolytes are refusing to accept Biden as the legitimate President, straining every sinew to make evidence-free claims of large scale voter fraud, sowing distrust in American democracy that will last for a generation. Putting aside the fact that ‘fuck your feelings’ has been their mantra for the past four years, and would undoubtedly have been their mantra for the next four had he been elected, the idea that future policy decisions should be taken with consideration for the concerns of racists is fundamentally repugnant.

Of course, there are those who argue that not every Trump voter is racist, but on that, I would have to call bullshit. Even if we were to take a ridiculously generous view of events and accept that a proportion of 2016 Trump voters didn’t know what they were getting, attempts to make a similar argument about 2020 voters are utterly preposterous after witnessing the unremitting horror show that has been his presidency. Anyone who voted for the man who spent nearly half a decade stoking racial divisions, characterising Mexicans as ‘rapists’, referring to literal Nazis as ‘very fine people’, inciting violence against black Americans, and using the police as his own private militia to savagely quell protests, is a racist. It’s an act of intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice to state otherwise.

The way to deal with bigots is not to ‘meet them halfway’. It is not a noble act to tolerate intolerance. I’ve lost count of the number of straight, cis, white ‘progressives’ who have replied to me on Twitter saying that we need to listen to people with abhorrent views, seek to understand them, work to find a mutual understanding. It’s a position that’s much easier to adopt if you’re not the one facing oppression, and it invariably betrays the blind privilege of those making the argument. And in reality, how the fuck is this even supposed to work?

“I notice that you wholeheartedly support the systemic abuse of black people, but have you maybe considered not doing that?”

“I see you just referred to trans people as ‘mentally ill sex pests’. I have an alternative view that you might find really interesting.”

The fact is, it’s nigh-on impossible to reason away any opinion reached without reason. It is incumbent on those holding hateful views to give ground, not on the rest of us to compromise our morals so they feel included. I just hope that doesn’t get lost in all the talk of ‘bipartisanship’ from the Biden/Harris administration.

For those of us who do find racism repellent, we now have a moral duty to examine our own behaviours, our friendships and our complacency to ensure we’re doing everything we can to eradicate intolerance in all its forms. If you have friends or relatives who say racist things, challenge them, rebuke them, and if necessary, cut them out of your lives. If you employ someone who makes bigoted statements, discipline them, sack them, make your company a safe place for everyone, regardless of colour, gender, gender identity or sexuality. If you look around and see that your own workplace or friendship circle lacks diversity, examine why that might be, and what you can do to change it. If you see laws or policies being suggested that serve to promote inequality, write to your representative in the appropriate legislative body and tell them ‘not in my name’.

There’s no doubt that the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is an important step back from the precipice, but it’s really not the end of anything other than the perpetual horror of having to call a vicious, perma-tanned rapist ‘President’. All the problems that brought him to power still remain, and if we raise the ‘Job Done’ banner now, we’ll end up back in exactly the same position at the end of the new administration’s term in office.

Black people don’t get to take four years off from racism. It pervades every minute of every day of their lives. A simple trip to the grocery store could result in verbal or physical abuse, a routine traffic stop in death. It’s time for us as left-leaning white people to recognise that this cancer doesn’t cease to exist just because it’s no longer being belched in our faces from a podium in the White House briefing room.

‘Looking after our own’ does not include feeding hungry children, insist racists

People who have spent decades howling about the need to slash foreign aid budgets on the basis that ‘charity begins at home’ were united today in the opinion that feeding hungry children in the UK does not satisfy their definitions of ‘charity’ or ‘at home’.

As schoolchildren across the nation face the prospect of a summer holiday without their nutritional needs being met, the heartless fucking ghouls who inhabit the comments sections of Daily Mail articles were immovable in their belief that hunger is both ‘character-building’ and ‘not the problem of the UK taxpayer’, despite the fact that six weeks ago they were enraged to the point of incontinence about the prospect of ‘sending money overseas when people need help in this country’.

The intervention of black footballer, Marcus Rashford, who has asked the government to reconsider their stance, has served only to enrage these definitely-not-racist individuals further, though this elevated anger has nothing to do with him being black, because none of these people are racist.

“Michael Ratchford needs to stick to bloody football and stay out of politics,” railed Denise, a Karen from The Cotswolds.

“People shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford to look after them, and it’s utterly inconceivable that a person’s financial circumstances might change after they have started a family, in response to, say, a global pandemic that shuts down the country’s economy and causes hundred of thousands of jobs to disappear.”

Darren Twatt, a chartered surveyor who has spent the past fortnight tweeting ‘ALL LIVES MATTER’, agreed:

“I don’t see why my taxes should be used to ensure that vulnerable young people who have no control over their family’s income are properly fed. That is the job of the parents, and if they are too feckless and work-shy to provide for their children, it is only fitting and correct that those children should suffer as a result.”

Following Rashford’s plea to the government to ‘make the U-turn’ on their decision to allow children to starve, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, issued the following statement:

“Lol, he’s having a fucking laugh, isn’t he? I don’t even bother to provide for most of my own indeterminate number of offspring, so it’s taking quite a lot of the piss to expect me to provide for ones I care even less about than that. If people are worried about their kids lacking essential resources, the only reasonable course of action is for them to pretend they don’t exist.”

Forensic Labour leader, Keir ‘Forensic’ Starmer, hit back forensically, however, saying, in the most forensic way imaginable:

“We are committed to working with the government on their important child-starving initiative, but wonder whether, in the spirit of cooperation and cross-party consensus, they wouldn’t mind considering, if it’s not too much trouble, starving them a bit less.”

Episode 18

Max talks to ‘Tracy Beaker’ and ‘Dumping Ground’ actor, Connor Byrne, about ballet, musical theatre, snow penises, LGBT rights and, inevitably, coronavirus.

Contains frequent strong language.

Episode 17

Max talks to director, writer and national treasure Kathy Burke about lockdown, the theatre and the places he can stick the questions she’s bored of answering. Contains frequent strong language.

Episode 16

Max talks to infectious disease doctor and presenter of CBBC’s ‘Operation Ouch’, Dr Chris Van Tulleken, about the Coronavirus pandemic.

This episode contains no strong language, and is suitable for younger listeners.