Staying Angry

Steven Methven

In the last week of March, my friend K. succumbed to Covid-19. It was slow – she stayed at home for most of the illness – until it was fast, and when it was fast, it was relentless. K. was as kind as she was tough. She liked a drink and loved a conversation. She had a talent for making me – anyone, really – laugh, and when I did, so would she: a crackling, unabashed laugh that rolled from her in a landscape of sound. Happiness, in breath’s shape. But her breath is gone, and I am furious.

‘Isn’t this grief?’ I’m asked. Perhaps. So what? We are so accustomed to contrasting sentiment with reason that we have forgotten that emotion can sharpen our vision, opening us to otherwise overlooked evidence on which reason can act. When serene, I threw about the benefit of the doubt as a gift to all. Now I see it is a currency with which our leaders will buy first-class tickets off the hook.

No matter the cost of this calamity, those in charge will find a means to transform it into a useful tale of their victory against the odds. And we will abet them. The time will come when we will all have to reckon both with our leaders and with ourselves as we tally the debits and credits accrued in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. With our leaders, obviously, because it will be their performances that head the balance sheets. But, less obviously, with ourselves, the assessors, because our future gratitude to the powers that be, on the far side of the pandemic, grows in proportion to its deepening darkness.

Relief, trauma, exhaustion, habituation, mourning, the welcome amnesia of the new dawn: these will conspire, later, to blunt our judgment and dull our memory. For now, as the numbers climb, and the coloured curves mount the graphs, we may treasure, if we are lucky, the calm that attends our confinement to the domestic sphere. But we owe our future selves, not to mention our current selves, and those already gone, the focused light of fury.

‘But now is not the time for anger.’ That’s another one, intended to defuse your rage, and you’ll hear it over and over again. First, it will be too early: what we have to do now is pull together, there will be time enough for recriminations later, you shouldn’t politicise this tragedy, the present is too dangerous for point-scoring. And then it will be too late: what we really have to do now is pull together, you should have said all of this at the time, what’s done is done, we need to look forwards not back. Anger, it seems, can never have its time.

This isn’t to deny that anger – misplaced, misdirected, mistimed – can deform and destroy both the person who feels it and those closest to them. But to try to ration what does not come in parts, or to cool what does not come in degrees, is to undertake only to extinguish. You can’t slice a flame to size, or persuade it to burn lukewarm. Still, encouraging us to disarm our anger serves the ends of those in power, who lead not by example but by platitude.

‘In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted. Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together,’ Boris Johnson said on 23 March, belatedly announcing a UK-wide lockdown. ‘Day by day we are strengthening our amazing NHS,’ he said, having refused to participate in the EU’s block-buying scheme to secure personal protective equipment for health workers, and ventilators for patients. ‘We are no longer members of the EU,’ his spokesman explained on the 26th. A few hours later, after a torrent of outrage, we were told that our absence from the scheme was the result of ‘a communication problem’. ‘There is such a thing as society,’ he announced on the 29th. What a moment to discover the object against which his party has set itself for forty years.

Johnson, having been admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 last week, is now out of hospital and recovering, thanks to the ministrations of doctors, nurses, support workers, cleaners and others, all at risk, all weighing their lives against the importance of their work in a way that no prime minister is ever called on to do. Like many others, Johnson has fallen victim to government policies; unlike the other casualties, he is responsible for those policies. It’s striking to see a politician suffer the direct consequences of his own mis-steps. Normally they are too well insulated to feel the effects.

A few weeks ago, it was possible to think that the deaths in Wuhan and Italy might at least furnish lessons to countries that were not yet afflicted by Covid-19. In the UK those lessons were not learned, thanks to a form of cultural and political exceptionalism based on stupidity at best, xenophobia at worst. We were told to ‘keep calm and carry on.’ K. kept calm and she carried on, until the government asked her, too late, not to. Days later, she died. A week would have made all the difference in the world, to her, and to all the others whose numbers will not be known for months.

The last blow, and perhaps the hardest: ‘You, who claim friendship, are politicising your friend’s death.’ No. You can’t politicise what is already political. There is so much anger yet to come. I hope it burns clean.


  • 18 April 2020 at 1:03pm
    Prof. jennifer Hornsby says:
    If I remember the final stage of grief is acceptance. I can feel angry at the thought that the nation might reach this stage.

    • 19 April 2020 at 11:32am
      J. Neale says: @ Prof. jennifer Hornsby

      I am watching Sweden carefully, as perhaps we all should. It is not in lockdown, but some measures have been taken, e.g., restaurants open but tables further apart.

      The figures for April 18 on Worldometers show total CoV cases at 1,369 per million population (these do include those with serious underlying conditions) with 7,387 tests per million population. As compared with, say, France, which has a complete lockdown, where the respective figures are 2,325 and 7,103. Both countries have outstanding health care.

      Total death rate is about 12% in both countries. But that has dropped in France and most other lockdown countries to 3% right now, whereas in Sweden it remains higher at 8%, presumably because more elderly people are being infected in the absence of lockdown.

      There is still a long way to go. Anger is understandable. But it should probably be restrained until this is over and all the facts can be reviewed.

  • 18 April 2020 at 3:34pm
    myquarters says:
    The lionising of the NHS and its frontline workers brings echoes of the way that the state brilliantly stage-managed opinion after the obscenity of World War 1. The trick was to construe the war as a holy cause, a cosmic battle of good against evil, the sacrifices of ordinary people as glorious, reverenced by monarch and church alike. The medals and honours, the angel-topped memorials, the Cenotaph pomp all served to create create an ethos in which the righteous anger and revolutionary ferment of the pre-war period was made to seem tasteless, if not blasphemous. We won't be fooled again. I wonder (and await the the New Years Honours list with interest).

  • 18 April 2020 at 3:37pm
    BrendanInCPH says:
    I am sorry for your loss, and also enraged. A friend of mine list his father. I am writing from Denmark, where already the rush to reopen us beginning. Economy over lives. We should absolutely stay angry:

    "Hans Kluge of the World Health Organization has said: 'Now is not the time to relax measures. It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive [the pandemic] toward suppression with the whole support of society.'

    On the one hand, the science is clear: so much about Covid-19 remains unknown (the possibility of re-infection, the effectiveness of antibodies, the timeframe for, and efficacy of, a vaccine, etc.). On the other, in the face of the unknown, our rulers are clear: leap into the breach!

    If we are to take our rulers seriously when they demand this leap into the unknown, why then should we not be taken seriously in our demand for a leap beyond the economy, into an unknown world of authentic humanity?

    Even the most cautious world leaders speak of “a new normal,” which is easy enough to envision: wearing gloves and a mask as you hammer away at your computer, physically enclosed and separated from your fellow human beings, while the profits of your labor rush across broadband networks, upwards and into the bank accounts of the owners and managers. Aside from the masks and gloves, what exactly is the qualitative difference? This virus has demonstrated concretely how alienated our lives already were – how isolated, how distanced, how lacking
    in warmth and purpose.

    There should be no “new normal.” If we learn anything from this pandemic, it should be that what is truly valuable cannot be found on the market. Ironically, the harshest judgment of the system has been leveled by the system itself, in its categories of “essential and non-essential workers.” In cities all around the world, we see nightly displays of communal applause for the healthcare workers battling
    the disease. Who claps for the bankers, the insurance agents, the media barons, the bond traders? Not a single soul.

    The panicked response of the elites makes it clear: they need us more than we need them. The collective response of human beings makes this clear: what we need most is that which we most love: community, solidarity, humanity. These are the true values of life, not the warped valuations of the spectral market.
    This pandemic has granted us the greatest general strike in human history. Let’s put it to good use.

    Now is not the time to relax our demands. It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to end the oppression of the economy for the whole liberation of humanity.
    13 April 2020"
    Full text:

  • 18 April 2020 at 4:42pm
    Mary O'malley says:
    Your friend deserves your honest grief and you are entitled to your anger. She sounds fabulous.

  • 18 April 2020 at 4:53pm
    Diana Davies says:
    Thank you for your insightful comments on "anger". This same afternoon I was trying to explain to a friend why I felt so angry at the disastrous trajectory and tragic consequences of the UK government's strategy so far regarding covid-19. There has never been anything wrong with well directed and reasoned anger at injustice, greed and political arrogance. I have family working on the frontline and it seems to me that applauding outside our front doors once a week is just not sufficient. We need to plaster our windows with messages and hold banners each Thursday evening that clearly state our anger at the lack of PPE, Priti Patel's faux "apology", and Hancock's scandalous inference that medical and care staff are wasting PPE supplies. Whilst Capt. Tom Moore can be admired, he should not have to walk to raise money for the NHS. He has already paid for it, as the rest of us have, his entire working life.

  • 18 April 2020 at 9:25pm
    stephenbuhner says:
    well said, thank you. And keep on saying it, please.

  • 18 April 2020 at 9:36pm
    Victoria Conran says:
    I am sorry for your suffering the loss of a dear friend. Thank you for speaking out, I share your rage. I feel boiling contempt at the reckless irresponsibilities of so called ‘leadership’; the blatant cruelty of the divisions administered by the regime in this society, now becoming more and more starkly evident in the numbers of dead. But most of all the putrid sentimentalism, at the great Tory war effort - succeeding at building a catastrophe yet to be fully understood at the same time as celebrated. Yet another achievement of rotten platitudes.

  • 18 April 2020 at 10:08pm
    Stephen Games says:
    Stop being so damn sanctimonious. Everything's up in the air right now. No one had a handle on this horror, or how to respond to it. And the right response is not anger. Get over yourself.

  • 18 April 2020 at 10:10pm
    Stephen Games says:
    And, just for the record, I also have friends who have died from covid-sodding-19 in the last few weeks. You don't have a monopoly of outrage.

  • 18 April 2020 at 10:13pm
    Able says:
    When is the rage being directed at China where the virus originated and the Chinese government kept the west in the dark until it had to be scramble to get ready and we know for sure bureaucrats in government service lack an ability for a speedy response which wouldn’t have been needed if the Chinese gov’t had clued us in a month earlier than they did.

    • 18 April 2020 at 10:54pm
      Graucho says: @ Able
      Communist parties have form on trying to cover up disasters. Remember Chernobyl. Not that our effort with Windscale was anything to be proud about. Trump is wrong to defund the WHO, the timing is all wrong, but it needs to be reformed and given teeth. A principle of guilty until proven innocent should be established. If a country refuses to allow WHO inspectors in, then an automatic and immediate global travel ban to and from there and closure of its borders should ensue.

  • 19 April 2020 at 1:32am
    wse9999 says:
    Understand the anger.
    But lot of balls dropped here, in many countries.
    And starting from Wuhan.
    Yes the full post-mortem will be interesting, just how many casualties globally resulted because of China’s apparent initial cover up of the outbreak, in an area acutely well known for such outbreaks.
    What if China back then, from the start, was open and cooperative globally?
    Huge lessons here.
    Pandemics are utterly apolitical. One planet, one community.
    Meanwhile more interesting data emerges regarding the true infection rate.
    WSJ, 18 April: „New Data Suggest the Coronavirus Isn’t as Deadly as We Thought.. A study finds 50 to 85 times as many infections as known cases—meaning a far lower fatality rate. Andrew Bogan April 17, “The preliminary results—the research will now undergo peer review—show that between 2.5% and 4.2% of county residents [Santa Clara, California, Silicon Valley] are estimated to have antibodies against the virus. That translates into 48,000 to 81,000 infections, 50 to 85 times as high as the number of known cases…. Based on this seroprevalence data, the authors estimate that in Santa Clara County the true infection fatality rate is somewhere in the range of 0.12% to 0.2%—far closer to seasonal influenza than to the original, case-based estimates..”
    Finally, the abiding glaring mystery here is the huge disparity in deaths per head population between Asia and rest of world, especially Europe/US, like by factor of 100 or more.
    Vietnam, pop. near 100m, reports 268 cases and no deaths.

  • 19 April 2020 at 10:43am
    RosieBrock says:
    Beautifully written. Important stuff here on anger and its powers to destroy. I believe anger to be much misunderstood. Denied, it can cause depression. When owned (understood) - identified as to cause, sourced, it can be a powerful force for positive change. Kubler Ross talked about anger being a stage on the road to acceptance of death (ones own terminal prognosis) or the loss of a loved one. In Steve's article, there is the anger stage to the personal acceptance of a friend's death. There is the rage at the human condition - (we all die) ; at the unfair choices of who dies; the randomness of those good souls selected to die by an alien virus out of our control (while Trump is allowed to live). There is also the anger that dwells in cold fusion, its power suspended in lead storage awaiting to explode at abject Government failings: (Gove's lies, Johnson's indulgence and lies, Hancock's PPE & testing lies) Jeremy Hunt's hypocrisy (massive underfunding, privatisation plans, failure to build for a future pandemic, 40,000 nurse places unfilled), when conditions allow. All these angers if understood , owned, commanded, directed appropriately, will not destroy us or those we love. But denied, they will .

  • 19 April 2020 at 11:04am
    RosieBrock says:
    A beautifully written piece and I agree with it. Anger is woefully misunderstood. Kubler Ross talks about anger on the road to acceptance in a patient given a terminal illness diagnosis. It is a peaceful message for the dying (although Dylan Thomas may not have agreed with it). Like Job, I have often railed at those who see anger as an emotion one can't afford. Anger denied can kill as surely as a virus that steals in the night. Owned, sourced, understood, anger can be a powerful force for change and good change at that. Directed correctly -Trump, Johnson, Xi, Bolsanaro, Gove, Hancock, the hyopcrite Hunt, it can be liberating . Suppressed and not brought out into the daylight, it can eat us up. You just have to know how to control it and use it wisely.

  • 19 April 2020 at 5:02pm
    XopherO says:
    The accusation of sanctimoniousness is just nasty. Everyone has the right to their anger right now. It should not be suppressed. This is a great blog, one of the best I have ever read in my short time as a subscriber.

    I would like to point to a scandal that should make everyone's blood boil: the failure to provide statistics on deaths in socio-medical facilities such as care homes and others. I have heard an estimate of 4,000. From a study of stats on Worldometer, I think this is likely to be, since the start, nearer 10,000, putting the UK total to 26,000, the largest in Europe. France has included this data since April 3, backdating it causing a massive rise in cases and deaths on that day. There is currently a cover-up in the UK, and it will continue - the CQC has had a lot of practice. Of course this is coupled with a failure to provide protection to workers and residents in homes. Yes, some of these citizens would have died in the near future anyway, but they have been denied dignity in death, and their family and friends a proper farewell and grieving. They are no doubt justly angry. This scandal should be exposed right now, not when statistics are finally compiled and they say 'oops, we missed that, never mind, it's over now'.

  • 19 April 2020 at 5:26pm
    Simon Jarvis says:
    If you're angry, you're angry. Since it's just a feeling, I can't see why you should be either blamed or congratulated for it.

  • 19 April 2020 at 10:10pm
    S r Clarke says:
    Steven Methven's contribution demonstrates that it is not true that the worst are full of passionate intensity; clearly others can be too. I share his anger, but presently fail to see who can convey or transmit across the broad population and electorate the causes for fury that ought to see this government of fools and knaves slung out of office. We need a 1945 election moment.

  • 20 April 2020 at 12:10am
    BethlehemOlivesRedeem says:
    I remember the outrage I felt when LBJ magnified JFK's war against the Vietnamese people, then when Nixon bombed Cambodia & Mutual Assured Destruction was our Thinking the Unthinkable policy. Then I was further outraged when the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth was ignored by both parties in Washington. I should have known better then. Coincidentally, I chanced upon a little-known book from 1963 by an anthropologist, Jules Henry, studying American society, titled Culture Against Man. You will appreciate his words, I'm sure: "[A]nger and guilt are being carefully weighed in the American family; they, too, are becoming casualties of 'dynamic obsolescence.' But when anger and guilt join the other junk in the cultural dump, thought, too, tends to obsolescence. To think deeply in our culture is to grow angry and to anger others; and if you cannot tolerate this anger, you are wasting the time you spend thinking deeply. One of the rewards of deep thought is the hot glow of anger at discovering a wrong, but if anger is taboo, thought will starve to death. It is the same with guilt, for where there is none there is no impulse to moral self-criticism, and in place of it is set self-examination merely as it relates to group conformity and getting ahead." -- Jules Henry, Culture Against Man (1963), p. 146

  • 21 April 2020 at 2:54pm
    lhazelrigg says:
    What I find so infuriating is that many of us had been warning for years, some of us for decades, that this was coming! Personally, we made preparations, our own stores of emergency supplies. But so few people listened, we now look around and see countless numbers of people who are suffering, some unto death, because they were lulled into easy belief by crass politicians who care nothing so much as to persuade voters to return them to office. And, more often than not, voters do!! If anyone wants evidence of failures of education, there it is, in massive quantity. I have been teaching for more than fifty years (though recently not in any conventional classroom), and during that time I have argued with large quantities of evidence that humans had been making and remaking nature in ways and to extents that would be lethal to us. Directly, eventually; in the meantime, indirectly, through the evolution of tropical disease, lack of research for new medications, worsening storms, etc.; next, a shortage of food. What has been the most notable recent evidence of response? A surfeit of idiots in state legislatures, governors' offices, US Congress, and of course the Grand Narcissist in Chief, Golden-Haired Twenty-First Century Blend of Caligula and Nero, aided by Mitch and other henchmen!

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