Covid-19 and common sense: Why placing responsibility on the public for a pandemic is wrong

Written by Eve Willis, 22.

The UK currently has had over 300,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and reported more than 46,000 deaths. This positions the UK as fourth from the top worldwide for coronavirus inflicted fatalities. Yet as England became the European epicentre for the virus, with even PM Boris contracting Covid, the Conservative government have continued to maintain a trust in “the common sense and perseverance of the British people” to curb the spread and defeat the virus.

But is it fair to rely on this so-called public consciousness to capably and rigorously stamp out the virus? Or is it asking too much of a population already fractured by underlying structural inequalities, exacerbated by years of austerity?

‘Common sense’ philosophy, or the idea that a united sense inherently exists in all rational humans, predates to ancient civilisations, but it is with the reasonings of 18th century thinkers like Thomas Reid where 21st notions of common sense came from. It was argued, somewhat idly, that a common sense judgement was “necessary to all men (interesting… women are without common sense obviously) for their being and preservation, and therefore it is unconditionally given to all men by the Author of Nature”.

If we all really did have an inherent built in “sense” what is the need for speed limits or laws at all?

Although apparently inherent to human nature, the ambiguity of “common sense” and the inability to define it philosophically, historically and scientifically has plagued academic realms for centuries. Unfortunately for the Great British public, our politicians seem preoccupied with using spurious, misleading and archaic notions of “common sense” to guide their public health policies and derail the damage of the virus. If scientifically and academically “common sense” has been so hard to define...why are the government welcoming a reliance on it?

In addition to using the pseudoscience of “common sense”, public addresses have been mired with a recycled World War Two rhetoric which declares things like “in this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted”. By militarising threats, such as Coronavirus, it allows the severity of the issue to be elevated in the public eye. This in turn permits the authorities to relocate responsibility from the government and shifts it to the public who assume a collective ownership of the threat. But can the Conservative government, who are no strangers to hardliner law and order policies, really believe that the British people have enough common sense to overcome Covid-19… and if we all really did have an inherent built in “sense” what is the need for speed limits or laws at all?

It appears that the reliance and revival of British common sense is only convenient when adopted by the government to serve an agenda. Common sense has frequently been cited as a guise to mask controversial ideas (Thomas Reid himself was accused of this). Could it be that by deflecting responsibility or partial responsibility for not only Covid-19, but the socio-economic effects of subsequent lockdown measures, the Conservative government can evade accountability for the sheer number of lives lost?

There are countless examples of the British public not using their ‘common sense’: Parks filled up in London in early lockdown, the beaches of the south coast thronged and recently Soho overflowed with pub goers when bars were given the all clear. Rather, it revealed glaring societal inequalities which mean that it is not as easy for everyone to ‘stay at home’ for months on end, with unclear, contradictory government advice. The icing on the cake being Cummings’ own unnecessary travel to Durham revealing the true hypocrisy of the governments devout trust in British “common sense”.

Now, with cases falling and lockdown measures easing, attention has been drawn to the financial implications of the pandemic. Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which seems to be an echo of the relocated responsibility, appears to make it a civic and collective obligation to eat out in order to get the economy back on track. Yet again the government are transparent in their intentions, thinly veiling a cheap meal out as a public duty to kickstart the economy. But for many, eating out is the last thing on their minds. The issues which proliferated during lockdown, like domestic violence and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black and minority ethnic groups remain stark reminders of unequal Britain, and surely higher up on the priority list than saving a tenner at Pizza Express.

Rather than pedaling a “common sense” pseudoscience, what the government should really be doing is utilising their power and undertaking a serious investigation into why Covid-19 spread like it did and how the structural inequalities that affront many people across the country have exacerbated the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

This contribution was written by Eve Willis, 22. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.