UK Prime Minister’s Illness Reveals Conservatives’ Attitude to Sickness
I know I’m on shaky ground here, making light of the Prime Minister’s stay in intensive care, but there are some observations that are just too on-point to not document. I mean, this stuff writes itself. Just a couple of weeks after he boasted about shaking hands with coronavirus patients, and said that maybe we should just take it on the chin and let it run through the population; the Prime Minister is (allegedly) on a ventilator reaping some of that herd immunity his government sowed.
But it gets darker than even this macabre observation. The former head of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Iain Duncan Smith, has given a rather odd statement on his thoughts for the PM’s health:
“I know him very well so I am deeply saddened really that it should come to this. He has obviously worked like mad to try and get through this but it’s not good enough so far.
It doesn’t mean necessarily that he isn’t going to pull through this because they may have put him on intensive care because they can treat him and he may have a secondary infection, a serious chest infection and that will stabilise him, they can get after it, and get him through this and out the other side quicker in a more stable way.
Let’s hope and pray Boris is in the best of hands and will pull through.”
Aside from the fact it sounds like Smith has decided Johnson is already doomed (he might not die, you know!), he reveals something of his thoughts on sickness and work. Countless sick and disabled people in Britain had their benefits reduced and sanctioned for months at a time, as a supposed incentive to get a job. Never mind that they weren’t in any state to work, for Smith sees work as a cure for all ills.
“He has obviously worked like mad to try and get through this but it’s not good enough so far.”
What on earth does this even mean? That with enough determination, Johnson could have seen off the virus; perhaps he just wasn’t believing hard enough? I’m pretty sure that’s not how coronavirus works. Maybe he meant that Johnson was still fulfilling all his Prime Ministerial duties, working his hardest, but he became weak and gave in to the virus? Again, that’s not how sickness works, but then again Smith is the man who sent Work Capability Assessment letters to dead people.
Former PM David Cameron, a man who should be permanently exiled for the damage he’s done to this nation in my opinion, seemed to think that Johnson’s sporting prowess would be enough to ensure he survives the disease:
“Boris is a very tough, very resilient, very fit person, I know that from facing him on the tennis court, and I’m sure he’ll come through this”
If only the public had been informed of the protective benefits of playing tennis, we could have avoided thousands of deaths. Or we could have listened to reputable scientists, and employed a proper lockdown, testing and tracing. I guess we’ll never know.
The media have bought into the toxic idea of working excessively and obsessively as a heroic act, with Johnson apparently governing from his sick bed, unwilling to delegate to his deputy. This furthers the unhealthy idea promoted by the DWP, that if you are sick you should soldier on and not stop to recuperate. It’s a macho ideal, about demonstrating how tough one is, not letting a bug get you down.
Some might say he’s living the consequences of his actions; others would say it’s just bad luck. I think it’s a bit of both. And given the state of the country created by Johnson and his colleagues, we can all take a little pleasure from seeing him hoist by his own petard. And let’s face it, with men like Smith on his payroll, it’s not like the Prime Minister is a stranger to contempt for the sick and disabled.
Johnson and his privately-educated colleagues will have been taught a version of stoicism that says any obstacle, including sickness, can be overcome just by trying a little bit harder and toughening oneself up. But it turns out this virus is untroubled by a stiff upper lip, as are all the other physical and mental ailments the government thinks are no impediment to employment.
This entitled and detached thinking is dangerous, and part of the reason Johnson and many of his colleagues caught the virus in the first place. This government didn’t take it seriously, and now here we are. He carried on working while he was already ill, harming not just his own health, but that of his others. His irresponsible behaviour has endangered people’s lives, not just those he personally infected or those made sick through his poor policies, but by sending the message that it’s normal to continue working even if you are gravely ill.
The DWP frequently deemed sick and disabled people fit for work when they were anything but. People in comas, or missing half their head, were considered able to work and had their benefits stopped, leaving them and their families destitute. I somehow think that Boris Johnson’s family (which one, though?) will not be forced to survive on £73.10 per week while he is ill, and I can’t imagine him queueing at the job centre.
The DWP made millions of people’s lives an absolute misery, and prematurely ended the lives of over 120,000. But the British public aren’t as offended by this colossal human rights violation as they are over people joking about Boris Johnson getting a sick note. I don’t wish the man ill (or well, to be perfectly honest) but I do appreciate the delicious irony of Johnson being brought down by the virus he portrayed as being no big deal. And it’s also a good time to reflect upon the fact that if he were subject to the rules laid out by his government, he would be in a far worse position.
Johnson is one of the most privileged men in the country, who will never have to suffer under his own draconian policies. But coronavirus can cross class boundaries and he gets to feel the effects of that, just as some 55-year old unemployed bloke on a council estate would. It’s not the great leveller some make out, as there are racial and class factors determining who is likely to get it, and what treatment they will receive. But once you have it, it’s the same pain and distress, the same risk to one’s life.
Johnson’s biographer told the Telegraph (Johnson’s former employer):
“He has a very weird attitude to illness. He was intolerant of anybody who was ill. Until now, he has had a very robust constitution. He has never been ill until now, and this will be a huge shock to him. His outlook on the world is that illness is for weak people.”
I wonder what it’s like for him to be one of the little people now. I’m not expecting an epiphany.
There are millions of people in Britain in a precarious financial position, who are desperate for help from the government. They’ve been good, they did as they were told, they worked hard and they paid their taxes. Surely that counted for something? The government wouldn’t abandon them at a time like this, right? Well, that help’s not been forthcoming, so that’s the price of loyalty, I guess. Those same “hard-working families” that politicians claimed to be catering for are now facing a choice between staying home with no money for rent, bills or food (so they might not have a home for much longer) or returning to non-essential work and risking their own lives and those of others.
The message that has been drummed into every British head — particularly the heads of bosses — is that you should work while you’re sick, that it’s not an excuse for slacking off, and you should soldier on as if it were a test of character. But the real test of character now is whether you will act to protect your fellow humans, or just yourself. That choice is made harder for those who don’t really have the choice due to Conservative Party policy.
Going to work when you’re unwell is bad for you, and yet it is treated as a sign of strength, a badge of honour, and a means of keeping precarious employment. We shouldn’t live like this, and our government shouldn’t encourage it. We shouldn’t use the language of war to talk about illness, making everything into a ‘battle’. It’s not about winners and losers, about who is strong enough to beat whatever it is. Illness is an inconvenience and exhausting, and sometimes it overwhelms us. That makes us human.
In these times when people are treated like mere cogs in a machine, we should remember our humanity and not dismiss it with wartime metaphors and quasi-religious beliefs about work. No-one is a failure for getting sick; those who don’t recover do not have some fatal character flaw. And painting the Prime Minister as some sort of superhero for going against scientific and medical advice is downright dangerous.