20 October 2020

We need to talk about…everything: Lionel Shriver on lockdown, the NHS love-in and Trump vs Biden

By Philip Patrick

Lionel Shriver could be forgiven for feeling a little frustrated; she really ought to be out and about touring the TV studios and book festivals applying her formidable energy to promoting her 14th novel. Instead she is in a dismal sounding semi-lockdown New York (‘quiet, too quiet, with a really depressing atmosphere’). 

As a woman with a declared ‘f*** you’ attitude to life, she is not at all happy with the restrictions, or the loathsome prospect of a ‘new normal’, and in our FaceTime interview explains why, before moving on to NHS worship, diversity quotas, and, of course, Biden vs. Trump.

Shriver, a committed lockdown skeptic, is a fierce critic of the way the virus outbreak has been handled by governments around the world, and deplores the effect the imposed restrictions, such as social distancing (‘the elevation of suffering’?) and face masks (‘narcissistic’?), have had on everyday life.

“It’s filmic, but it’s one of those movies that never ends. It’s not even that interesting. It’s just awful. I hate the way it (wearing masks) changes my interactions with people. I find myself smiling anyway; the impulse is still there. But they don’t get it; they do not receive it. It makes all commercial interchanges dry and almost hostile. I refuse to wear a mask out of doors, because it’s epidemiologically ridiculous.”

It’s not clear whether Shriver is more incensed by the new rules, or by people’s unthinking, uncritical, irrational acceptance of them.

“I was one of the earliest lockdown skeptics. From the get-go I just thought the numbers didn’t justify the response. There were not enough people dying. And what we have exposed is widespread statistical ignorance. Even in the US people think 170,000 people dying is huge, like a massacre; but 3million people die in the US every year, and a large proportion of those 170,000 would have died this year anyway. But, of course, that sounds callous, and gets you into terrible trouble, but it’s true.”

A strange religion

I wonder how Shriver, who spent the lockdown in London, felt about the almost compulsory NHS worship.

“I found the ‘Clap for Carers’ stuff’ nauseating, and it won’t surprise you to learn I was not out there on the kerb banging my pots. Partly it’s an aversion to group activities of any kind, but it’s also an aversion to the idea that we should worship an institution. I find that baffling. It’s said all the time that the British worship the NHS, that it’s a religion. But why would you worship a healthcare system?

“Other European nations, with much more functional healthcare systems, don’t worship them. It’s peculiar, and I think there’s insecurity at the base of it. The British are all too aware of the shortcomings of the NHS and want to cover them up, they don’t want to admit those shortcomings to themselves.”

Not only does Shriver think NHS worship odd, she is prepared to voice the heresy that it is thoroughly undeserved. 

“The effect of Covid on the NHS has been catastrophic. I would say beyond catastrophic, it’s been criminal. They have stopped providing health care; there is no NHS; the hospitals are empty. And doctors in fields other than virology, they don’t want to come to work. They’ve been scared as much as anybody. They won’t do in-person consultations; they do everything by Zoom, if they do anything at all. And this is not the way to provide medical care. It’s not responsible. And the number of cancers that aren’t going to be caught will far exceed the number of Covid fatalities.”

“But it’s worse than that. It’s not just cancer. You can’t get an appointment with a doctor, and with the way the NHS is run, you can’t get into the system period without going to Accident and Emergency. And the backlog is now in the millions. 

“The NHS locked down, and it’s never given the blame. It’s like ‘everyone came to work regardless of the risk’ – well, no they didn’t, and they still aren’t. And I think it’s a scandal.” ‘

A scandal indeed, but will the truth, as she sees it, ever be allowed to come out, or is it so appalling that it must be forever internally denied?

“It is in very few people’s interest that it becomes accepted that the lockdowns were a big mistake, and in fact the biggest mistake since WW2. I can’t think of another mistake on this scale. I just can’t. And one of the problems with convincing people is that the real consequences have yet to be felt. In Britain it’s just been one long holiday, people sitting around getting paid to watch Netflix. The shoe hasn’t dropped.”

She cites her 2013 novel ‘The Mandibles’ which described how economic collapse could be sudden and devastating. 

The entire debt situation is a massive Ponzi scheme, and Ponzi schemes always fail. You just don’t know when. The US alone is piling a minimum of 4 trillion dollars on the national debt this year and it could easily go higher. This is bonkers. I think what is at stake right now is not just that we head into a recession, I’m worried about the stability of the entire financial system.”  

Trump, Biden and the dead end of identity politics

Which brings us finally to Trump, one of whose best hopes for reelection might be to focus on an economy stuttering back into life as the Corona threat recedes. Lionel Shriver is no fan, and is backing Biden in November, but without much enthusiasm, and with numerous caveats. She is particularly unimpressed with the way his VP was chosen.

“My heart sank when Joe Biden promised to have a female Vice President. I don’t want that decision, especially in an election where it is entirely possible that she becomes President. So, that was pandering to me. And I don’t want to be pandered to. I just want a qualified VP. And to eliminate that many candidates, off the top, I thought was irresponsible. And of course, if you’re going to think that way, then it was inevitable that the next demand would be that it had to be a ‘VP of colour’. That was a done deal as soon as he said it had to be a woman.”

This links in with Shriver’s new novel, where a lead character is passed over in favour of a person of colour, chosen purely for their identity characteristics, a consequential moment in the story that has broader lessons for society.

All across the board, people are not being hired for their abilities, but because it increases the diversity profile. That’s just not going to end well. (US affirmative action programmes) have been a disaster, and are impossible to get rid of, once you’ve installed them. It’s here to stay. It’s fundamentally unfair and not even good for the people it’s supposed to help.”

If team Biden is not to be trusted then, does she have any sympathy for Trump? And can one really say, if you discount the grotesqueries of the character and focus solely on the outcomes, that Trump’s presidency has been as disastrous as prophesized?

He hasn’t been nearly as bad as he could have been. He hasn’t got us into any wars, and that’s a big one, and a worry when he took office, as he’s so bellicose and belligerent and poorly informed – understatement. In terms of the actual events of history, I don’t think he’s been that cataclysmic. But he has had a corrosive effect on the culture of politics, and also on unelected government. I hear from friends in the State Department that it’s been completely hollowed out. A lot of the career civil servants that keep things ticking over are leaving or have left. And I think that’s real and lasting.

“And he has further demonized people like me, who advocate a strong border force and want to keep the asylum system limited to the people for whom it was intended. And the same goes for Britain. But now Trump makes me look bad. Any talk of enforcing your own immigration rules, now make you some kind of Nazi. And he’s made that worse. It was bad enough to begin with and he’s made that worse.”

Shriver is making no predictions about the November election – “I have no special insight, and I got it wrong last time” – but whatever happens she will surely have something interesting to say about it. Lionel Shriver might have to accept lockdown, but she certainly won’t be muzzled.

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Philip Patrick is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo.
Lionel Shriver's latest novel, 'The Motion of the Body through Space', is available from Harper Collins.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.