What Can Shin Godzilla teach us about the UK Government's Covid-19 Response?


Hashaam Yaqoob probes the parallels between Shin Godzilla and the politics of COVID-19

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Image by Altitude Film Entertainment (UK)

By Hashaam Yaqoob

There’s a heavy slice of irony in how the anxiety underlying Godzilla, the rampaging lizard the size of a skyscraper, was in great part directed at a mere handful of decision-making government individuals with their fingers on nuclear buttons. Mirroring these onscreen concerns in an even more dystopian reality, is the national alarm elicited by the response of the UK government to the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

So it made perfect sense for Hideaki Anno to write and direct a film about a giant existential disaster. However, unlike in his hit anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, in which the jeopardy is puberty, this crisis is of gormless political bureaucracy. The original Godzilla was a commentary on the dangers and fears surrounding nuclear weapons before totally selling out with the ‘Monsterverse’ franchise. But in 2016’s Shin Godzilla, Anno has updated the film in response to the Japanese government’s approach to catastrophic natural disasters in 2011, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster that they precipitated. It channels an anxiety over the national government’s handling of widespread disaster – which is where the 2020 parallels emerge.

The film begins with a prime minister's worst nightmare: what was originally thought to be a volcanic anomaly has now grown a violent tail. Keeping the wider public in the dark proves to be futile in the age of smartphones; a press conference must be held. Honesty, clarity and confidence are needed to prepare the public for the scale of the threat being faced. Instead, the PM decides to downplay the disaster by declaring that the creature is incapable of leaving the water. Obviously, as soon as he says this, the creature leaves the ocean and proceeds to destroy a nearby city.

Meanwhile, this response is visible in the UK Government’s response to the pandemic. On 2 March, Boris Johnson held an urgent press conference, telling the country: “We are very very prepared,” despite missing five emergency COBRA meetings.

It’s a disaster! Godzilla has left the water, a vicious infant causing havoc and destruction wherever it roams. Instead of informing the local governments about the Godzilla problem, the prime minister lets “the people below” deal with the problem as it comes. As a result, those at the forefront of the disaster are left in the dark to fend for themselves whilst depending on an indifferent national government.

While as Covid has grown into an unprecedented pandemic, it’s still not too late to tackle this mess. Johnson continues with the laissez-faire herd immunity strategy he announced in February. On 3 March, Boris Johnson boasted about shaking the hands of Coronavirus patients. A case in point.

The problems with herd immunity are that it treats the most vulnerable in society as dispensable, and it ignores the unpredictability of a mutating virus. In Shin Godzilla, legal barriers are quickly cleared and an army is mobilised to bomb the hell out of Godzilla while it is still young and exposed – until the risk of civilian casualties forces them to call off the attack.

Such an approach is hardly the case with Covid-19. When announcing the herd immunity approach, Johnson spoke like the Grim Reaper, stating that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time,” many of whom could have been saved if the government had acted more rapidly. Either way, just as the mutations of Godzilla go on to render an overt military assault useless, the UK government’s mishandling of the disaster allowed it to grow into a more threatening danger.

In their slow and ineffective response to the ravages of this gargantuan lizard, trust between the national government and their citizens has disappeared. Many refuse to evacuate their homes or even believe in Godzilla’s existence, accusing the government of conspiracy and leaving our heroes struggling to evacuate a population that distrusts them. Of course the government finally settles on dropping a nuclear bomb on Tokyo, the prime minister lamenting for his career, as he knows he will be regarded as the leader who dropped a bomb on his own country. Luckily, a breakthrough in scientific research leads to the Japanese government successfully enacting a plan to freeze the creature solid. Perhaps this will parallel the eventual production of a Covid-19 vaccine, which will rescue us from the jaws of this apocalyptic pandemic and of the impotence of our government.

During the pandemic, there were much more effective responses at the grassroots level. Individuals decided to act voluntarily, before it was required by local governments to do so in some states. The recent debacle surrounding footballer Marcus Rashford and the UK government’s initial hostility to extending the free school meals has demonstrated the power of mutual aid, as individuals, charities, and businesses have contributed donations to support children whose families are food insecure. Across the pond in the US, the outreach efforts of the DC Mutual Aid Network involve work with the elderly, public housing residents, unhoused citizens, and other vulnerable people. People have made grocery runs for the elderly and those at high medical risking this period. Still, though, a minority refuse to believe the threat of the pandemic, thanks to the influence of Facebook conspiracy theories.

So, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that if Godzilla was real; our government would worry more about the optics of dropping a thermonuclear bomb on the country than about the danger staring at it right in the face.