We were ordered, with prohibitive red, to STAY HOME. The noun ‘home’ provides clarity – what else can it mean? Stay put in the security of your own space in order to minimise the risk of contact with others who might be carrying the virus. We had to avoid contact because we couldn’t know who might be carrying the thing. The asymptomatic were an infectious risk.
Now, we are entreated, with permissive green, to STAY ALERT. The adjective ‘alert’ – defined by The Free Dictionary as: vigilantly attentive, watchful, mentally responsive and perceptive, quick, brisk or lively in action – engenders unclarity. Alert to what? How? We can’t see viral particles without an electron microscope. We can’t always see who is or has been sick as a result of having been infected with them. What exactly are we to respond or react to? To somebody else moving within two metres of our personal space? To groups congregating in public spaces? Avoid them, report them, ignore them, break them up? Be mindful of the need to maintain social distancing, but no longer (if you ever did) feel compelled? Which by many reports is not happening in the UK.
We were starkly reminded to PROTECT THE NHS – too many falling ill with Covid-19 places severe additional strain on an already over-stretched health service, for which sufficient PPE for its workers was unavailable. Clear to the public regarding its own actions, though less clear regarding the government’s.
But CONTROL THE VIRUS requires us to do what? Most of us are not ‘northern chemists’ – the derogatory label applied particularly to those studying the sciences by toff Oxbridge arts graduates. A virus is a wild product of evolution. If the opportunity is there, it will do what it has evolved to do – parasitise a host to enable it to replicate. (Because if it hadn’t evolved to do so, it wouldn’t exist.) The only way to prevent this – in lieu of a vaccine – is reduce the opportunities for its transmission to new hosts. In other words, hygiene, self-isolation and social distancing. Without these measures, we cannot ‘control’ an insidious virus, like some errant, misbehaving child. But these measures require clarity: introducing unclarity like ‘alert’ brings scope for misinterpretation – inadvertent or wilful – which, hence, sees many falling off the wagon with a Bank Holiday bang – according to many reports literally to the head, requiring a distracted NHS to now attend to drunken, bloody, concussed ones.
Clarity is logic. So, it followed logically that, if we stayed home, we would protect the NHS and, by extension, save lives. But now we move to the illogicality of unclarity: it makes no sense that, if we are no longer required to stay home, but merely stay alert (to what?), we will control the virus – tame its wildness – (how?) and thus no longer have any need to worry about protecting the NHS… because we will still be saving lives.
Now is not a time for woolly language; now is not a time to appease a populist mindset hysterically carping on that measures which cause inconvenience and take some of the fun out of life for a while are an attack on civil liberties. Do not feed polysemous scraps to a media all too primed to further distort message and meaning. As if the UK has not been damaged enough by such already.
We do not have the authority to tell others what and what not to do. The government does. But this new mantric messaging on Covid-19 is a resort to the lingistic ambiguity favoured by this Prime Minister and his government, which is incapable of taking back control. It leaves room for them to blame us… because we were not alert enough; we didn’t do enough to control the virus. A Prime Minister devoid of conscience is trying to appeal to ours by continued resort to the appeal of wartime-like rhetoric:
Watch out! There’s a virus about. Careless walk costs lives.