The post-Brexit debate, often involving the performance of allegiance on Facebook or Twitter, does not much resemble the collective deliberation of the ancient agora. Other aspects of the ancient city are making an unwelcome return. The first is a more prescriptive ideal of citizenship, according to which those who fail to measure up to a patriotic standard – ‘Remoaners’ and immigrants – lose their moral claim to membership. The ancient punishments of ostracism and exile are reprised in the enthusiasm of the Home Office for deporting people to countries they’ve never seen. Meanwhile, productive work on farms and in factories is often delegated to rightless foreign metics.
Nothing changed and everything did. In Mar Mikhael, one of the areas of Beirut most damaged by the explosion last August, there were more signs of reconstruction than destruction when I visited last month. New glass storefronts were being mounted; inside pubs, furniture was set up for reopening. Across the highway, the remains of the 48-metre-high silos at the port stood charred and desolate. Traffic jammed the roads: it had picked up again, I was told, because of the holidays. Downtown, most of the stores were still boarded up and the walls covered with expletives, there since the protests that started in October 2019. The scene repeated itself further west at the central bank, and at various other banks, some of which were now permanently closed.
In the last six months of 2020 – the death spiral of the Trump presidency – a series of peace deals and normalisation agreements were signed between Israel and Arab countries: the UAE and Bahrain came first, in September, followed by Sudan and Morocco. Rumours are that Oman will be next. In November, Netanyahu went to Saudi Arabia to meet the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. Apparently, while most countries were counting the minutes till Trump’s term would be over, Israel and a few monarchies and dictatorships in the Arab world were squeezing the most out of his last weeks in office. Each delegation asked Trump, as if he were the Wizard of Oz, for what it most wanted in return for normalising relations: to be taken off the list of state sponsors of terrorism (Sudan); to have its illegal occupation of other people’s land recognised (Morocco); to buy a few squadrons of F-35s (UAE); to put the Palestinian cause to sleep (Israel); possibly along with other promises we will never hear about.
The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, which documented disproportionate incidences of deaths and disease in Irish mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998, was published this week. The commission was set up in 2015 after the discovery of around eight hundred unmarked burial plots on the site of the former Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Co. Galway. It found that around nine thousand children died in the eighteen homes under investigation. The mortality rate, around 15 per cent, was almost twice what it was for ‘illegitimate’ children in wider society. The children died from respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, from diphtheria and typhoid. They died in homes that were overcrowded, where there were large, shared dormitories and nurseries, where privacy was impossible, where cots were crammed together, sometimes only a foot apart.
The Covid-19 regulations are draconian, inconsistent, obscure and inconvenient, but they are not unconscionable. They do not require me to do things that the state should never make its citizens do. They are proportionate to the threat that the virus poses to health services, and necessary to slow the spread of the disease and protect those services: or at least, they are arguably so. The law and the reasons for it make sense. The regulations are contained within statutory instruments. They alone are the law. They are the ‘rules’. They can be enforced with criminal sanctions. Guidance and advice are not rules and cannot be legally enforced.
Were it not for the semi-consistent use of masks in the street, and the closing of the beaches on Sundays and Mondays, you could be forgiven for thinking the pandemic hadn’t reached Salvador da Bahia, the capital of the state with the second-lowest Covid-19 death rate in Brazil. The official number of deaths for the whole country surpassed 200,000 on 8 January. Locals and visitors (mainly from elsewhere in Brazil) congregate in groups at outdoor tables without masks, and people walk – some masked, others not – along the oceanfront. A festa continua, mas não.
In my first year of secondary school, a science teacher began a lesson on nutrition by asking us to tell her what we ate for dinner so we could categorise the components of our meals into their correct food groups. She looked aghast as child after child muttered ‘chips and beans’. For some, ‘chips and beans’ was cover for something less wholesome and dependable. The teacher quickly abandoned the exercise and instead reverted to the mythical meal on the ‘food wheel’ poster Blu-tacked to the wall, a testament to our parents’ failings.