After British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care on Monday night to treat symptoms of Covid-19, political allies moved quickly to express sympathy. Many of them did so specifically by praising his health and vigor, and insisting that his spirit would see him through. Dominic Raab, now Johnson’s de facto second-in-command, said he knew Boris would pull through because he’s a “fighter”. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, said the exact same thing. US President Donald Trump added that Johnson is “strong, resolute, doesn’t quit, doesn’t give up.” And former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said, ” Boris is a very tough, very resilient, very fit person, I know that from facing him on the tennis court and I’m sure he’ll come through this.”
It’s understandable that friends and colleagues would want to portray Johnson at his best, and that they would hope for his recovery. But it’s dangerous, particularly with this virus, to suggest that illness spares the virtuously resolute and only takes those who are weaker or possessed of less willpower.
It’s common for people to discuss diseases like cancer as battles through which patients struggle and fight to victory (or “lose”.) But when you praise people for fighting and defeating cancer, or coronavirus, you’re implicitly saying that people who die do so because they weren’t committed enough to the battle. It subtly suggests that the virtuous survive and that the sick are to blame for their own mortality. The truth is that if Johnson recovers, it will be because he received good care and was lucky — not because he’s uncommonly plucky or strong.
The idea that the weak are expendable, and that their deaths are natural and expected, has been an ugly theme of public discourse about, and public policy around, the virus. A number of Republicans in the United States, like Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, have argued that we should suspend social distancing and that the old should be willing to die so the young can have a fully functioning economy. Many state policies, like those of Washington and Alabama, more or less explicitly tell doctors to prioritize ventilator use for people without physical or mental disabilities. The strong should get care first; the supposedly less strong second, or never.
This is a mindset that harms everyone, abled and disabled, young and old, in the middle of a pandemic. The idea that the young and strong are immune is false; young people with no underlying health conditions are less likely to become really ill from the virus, but they still can die of Covid-19. Encouraging people to believe they are immune because they’re not old, or have no underlying conditions, can lead certain demographics to take unnecessary and potentially fatal risks.
Praising strength and courage in the face of coronavirus can also undermine public health measures. Boris Johnson refused to stop shaking people’s hands despite warnings from health officials that handshakes increased the risk of contracting the virus. At a press conference on March 3, he boasted, “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.”
The hand-shaking incident was probably not where Johnson contracted the virus, since it was more than two weeks before he tested positive. But the bluff refusal to change his habits, and his reluctance to admit to his own vulnerability, are in line with a desire to project strength, courage, and resilience. Johnson’s plan for Britain to simply tough out the virus and “take it on the chin”, letting the public contract it until they built up herd immunity, also emphasized bravery and pressing on.
Usually, people view bravery and hearty persistence as praiseworthy qualities. A worker who comes in despite being sick, for example, is seen as dedicated and committed to their job. But when you’re dealing with a pandemic, dragging yourself into work doesn’t demonstrate strength or resolution. It demonstrates irresponsibility and it puts coworkers at risk. Policies which try to force people to work despite illness, or despite a lack of protective equipment, are cruel and potentially deadly at all times, but especially when the world is in the grips of a communicable threat like Covid-19.
Courage without caution is not admirable, and valuing strength for strength’s sake is likely to lead you to make immoral and foolish choices. We don’t need physical fitness from our leaders. Nor do we need them to keep on with harmful policies, no matter what. What we need from people at the forefront of this health crisis is wisdom, compassion, and a willingness to speak the truth. Strength, in these times, is a feeble virtue.