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Javid’s children – out of shape and out of their poor minds


ON November 9, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced to the House of Commons that a full Covid vaccination status will be required of all patient-facing NHS staff from April 1, 2022. ‘I am mindful of the need to protect human life,’ he said. 

‘To protect human life’: the phrase struck an off note as the sequel to Hancock’s slogan ‘Save Lives’, which at least acknowledged that humanity comprises individual beings.

We talk about ‘plant life’ or ‘animal life’. But how often do we say ‘human life’? The phrase rings with indifference, with that distant carelessness about the components of a large group which we may feel when we lift a stone to reveal the ‘insect life’ beneath.

At other times, the phrase ‘human life’ would probably be unremarkable. But given that our government, in lockstep with governments worldwide, seems bent on reframing its people as a ill-disciplined lump of behaviours and diseases, to be administered from on high, Javid’s desire ‘to protect human life’is surely significant as well as objectionable.

At a swimming pool the other day, a woman took the seat next to me and smiled. At least I judged that she smiled – her eyes narrowed slightly and creased about their edges. The rest of her face was hidden behind a blue surgical mask.

As she turned to scroll through her phone, it occurred to me how little of her appearance and personality she was offering to the world, how barely-human she was, how abstract – body slumped over a tiny screen, and a face that might be anyone’s.

This is ‘human life’, I thought. This inert, anonymous being: this is what Javid wants to protect . . .

And this, it appears, is what Javid wants to breed. Last week saw the return of mandatory face masks in secondary schools. Not in classrooms yet, but in the between-lesson social spaces in which our children have the chance to establish themselves, to try out what kind of person they are and might be. Now, this vital opportunity to flourish is taken from them; you cannot find yourself when you are masked in a sea of masks.

The question is whether this masking of our children, nasty enough on its own, is only the surface manifestation of a deeper campaign against their chances of defining themselves.

At the swimming pool, the daughter of the masked woman next to me joined a group of other eight-year-olds being instructed on the front crawl at the near edge of the pool. Once each had taken their turn and heard how they were to improve, they clambered out and walked back the length of the pool to line up and do it again.

During the half-hour that followed, these young children filed past me several times. It was not an uplifting parade. Though it is almost taboo even to notice it, the fact is they seemed out of shape, distinctly lacking in tone and posture.

With only a single exception in the group of eight, these children’s movements were more clumsy than they should have been, their shoulders more rounded, their hips turned inwards, their feet slapping against the tiles as if they were, somehow, out of their element.

What is happening to our children that they are misshapen and unwieldy in this way?

In a short film called Numb, from June 2020, 15-year-old Liv McNeil depicted the experience of many children during the Covid lockdowns, sentenced to schooling and socialising on a screen. Following a brief survey of the photographs and trophies on display in her bedroom, telling of outdoor activity camps, parties with friends and triumphs on the ski slope, the camera comes to rest in front of Liv – seated cross-legged on her bed, back bent over her laptop.

There follows a series of rapid cuts, in which Liv remains seated and slumped through the changing outfits and hairstyles of passing days and weeks – like one of those cheap cut-out cardboard dolls to which you can attach different items of clothing and heads of hair.

Numb closes with clips of Liv – still seated, still slumped – apparently screaming at her computer screen. She is, with good reason, losing her mind. She is also losing her shape.

If we are concerned about the thoughts and feelings of our children during the sedentary isolation imposed by Covid restrictions, then we should also be concerned about their muscles and joints which must surely be atrophied and contorted.

The National Child Management Programme recently reported that obesity rates in reception aged children increased from just under 10 per cent to almost 15 per cent over the single academic year spanning 2020 and 2021; rates of obesity in Year 6 aged children increased from 21 per cent to over 25 per cent. By the age of 12, more than four in every ten children are now overweight or obese.

The fragile frames of those eight-year-olds at the pool are destined to be covered in fat. And it looks as if their faces are destined to be covered in cloth.  

What will they be once all this covering is accomplished, once their already neglected bodies are further overlain and obscured? They will be ‘human life,’ of which our Health Secretary declares himself so mindful: an inexpressive, undifferentiated human heap in which it will be very, very difficult to find yourself.

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Dr Sinead Murphy
Dr Sinead Murphy
Dr Sinead Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.

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