Editorial: Fish tanks, pandemics, handcuffs and triangles

'governments are slow to realise that the fish have started swimming upside down'

To keep tropical fish in a cool climate there has to be artificial heat and light as well as food and oxygen. When a fish tank shows signs of being an unhealthy environment, perhaps with signs of disease, then an inexperienced and panicking keeper might try, at various times: turning the heat up, down or off; turning the lights up, down or off; increasing, decreasing or removing food; and fiddling with the air pump. Readers can imagine how the fish and plants might respond.

I see similarities in governments’ responses to Covid. Every aspect of normal life – work, education, play, travel, leisure, exercise, family and social life... has been tampered with. This has been done with a veneer of science masking some incompetent experimentation. Ministers tell us the urgency of the situation excuses their incompetence. Returning to my fish tank metaphor, governments are slow to realise that the fish have started swimming upside down.

Much of the experimenting has been organised in a dialogue, sometimes collaborative and sometimes combative, between scientists trying the keep us healthy and economists trying the keep each county functioning. I would have preferred a triangle in which human rights experts could have represented our general wellbeing as systems are switched on and off and as some of us seem to be in danger of swimming upside down.

There was and is no triangle. Human rights of adults and children have been completely ignored. There are strong appeals now for enquiries to hold governments to account and I predict that any report (that is not tampered with) will have a chapter on human rights and the illegality of what governments have subjected us to. There might also be chapter to explain why the majority of citizens acquiesced.

This is where the handcuffs come in. Governments have learned they can use Covid to break up any gathering, commemoration or demonstration whether in memory of murdered women, in support of Black Lives Matter or by children trying to warn us of climate change. This threat to the democratic voice is as dangerous as the pandemic.

Daniel Finkelstein in the Times newspaper on 17/3/21 under the heading, ‘Were we too ready to surrender our freedom?’ says:

‘The pandemic has taught government that in order to feel safe, we are willing to put up with much greater sacrifices of our liberty than it had previously imagined. This lesson will not be forgotten.’

Sarah Boseley in the Guardian newspaper on 15/3/21 under the heading, ‘Has the coronavirus pandemic led to a permanent erosion of citizens’ rights to dissent?’ says:

‘But protest in the pandemic has become fraught, with fundamental democratic rights eroded in the name of protecting population health, according to a report published by Carnegie Europe in January. Monitoring carried out by civil society organisations, they say, has shown a tendency of many governments to use health concerns as a means of cracking down on dissent.’


We will each have a view of the sort of future we want for ourselves and the generations following us. If the choice we are presented with is life supposedly without viruses in an authoritarian regime or life in a democracy with viruses coming and going, I will opt for the latter. What about you?

Peter Limbrick, March 2021