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March 27th 2020
We all have our theories about exactly why Trump and Johnson are making such a poor job of dealing with the corona pandemic. Their responses to the crisis have little in common with the responses of other countries but plenty in common with each other – the dithering, the delays, the utter incompetence and the disregard for science, for clear communication, for huge swathes of the populations they respectively fail to either lead or represent. The fact-free floundering of these charlatans – out of their depth, beleaguered and babbling – has many facets but is essentially the product of a single root cause. Neither Trump nor Johnson has ever faced a situation before in their lives where they didn’t hold all the cards. Born to wealth and privilege, cosseted from infancy and insulated from the slings and arrows, sheltered through life and at every turn handed an inbuilt advantage over whatever confronted them. Now, when we need leadership, we find that we’ve allowed a minority of each of our electorates to foist upon us these feeble-minded show-ponies who haven’t the first idea how to deal with adversity. At a time when we need leaders who step up when the odds are against them, we find ourselves saddled with lightweights who’ve never struggled against so much as a level playing field. When we needed MLK we got MDF.
For both men, their failure to understand the seriousness of the situation and their consequent willingness to prioritise other concerns above dealing with the pandemic will cost lives. Trump and Johnson’s lack of gravitas – in both cases a large part of their popular appeal – will result in the unnecessary deaths of some of the citizens for whom they are responsible. This is a matter of life and unnecessary death.
For both men, the issues they prioritised above the pandemic were the economy and their own popularity. For both men this meant playing down the threat when they should have been preparing for it. Trump got a head start while Johnson was trying to “Get Brexit Done”, declaring that the situation was under control (January 22nd and 30th) had been shut down (February 2nd), would die in April with the hot weather (10th and 14th), that people are getting better (25th), cases will be close to zero (26th), it’s going to disappear like a miracle (27th), it’ll disappear and you’ll be fine (28th), there will be vaccines soon (March 2nd), and therapies (“therapies is sort of another word for, you know, cure”) (3rd). At this point someone in Number 10 must have noticed that Johnson had taken his eye off the ball and he was wheeled out to Kettering General Hospital to lie about having shaken hands with patients suffering from covid-19. That he was lying is hardly the point – both Trump and Johnson are compulsive, instinctive liars – we’ve known that since well before either of them took office. That he was conveying a message that the virus is no threat – that we can be blasé about both its spread and its consequences – is the point. If such actions aren’t actually criminally negligent, then that can only represent a failing of our legal system, because they should be.
Meanwhile, Trump moved to claiming ‘low numbers’ (March 4th) and then ‘the lowest numbers’ (6th) while Johnson appeared on one of the UK’s biggest daytime TV shows (on March 5th) to make vague noises in the direction of the soon-to-be-announced herd-immunity approach: “One of the theories is that you know…um, perhaps you could sort of…take it on the chin, take it all in one…in one go, and allow the disease as it were to…to move through the …the population, er…I… without really taking as many draconian measures”. And there it is – the herd immunity approach. Before his light-entertainment interrogators Holly and Phil could challenge him on this – before they could get a word in – he began to row back on it: “I think we need to strike a balance”. (As if the idea of a balance between the herd-immunity approach and some other approach is a legitimate concept, rather than a dense mass of anti-thought). Within minutes he’d changed his mind and was supporting immediate intervention to flatten the curve: “I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now…just to…you know, to stop the peak of the disease being as….er…as…difficult”. Straight out of the gaslighter’s playbook he’d told us that some people had a theory that we were all expendable, like corona cannon fodder, then he’d immediately clouded the issue and finally said he’d make sure everything would be done to look after us. The idea was out there: there’s this theory – ooh a theory, how very sciencey – and it’s “counterintuitive”. This alone has the effect of immediately recruiting an army of social media propagandists who can’t wait to explain to their friends how “it may seem like that to the layman, but here’s the clever sciencey stuff that you probably don’t understand”. The idea was out there, but Boris was on record as preferring a different option, in case it all went Pete Tong. Over a week later Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Officer was announcing that the herd-immunity approach was indeed the government’s policy, and that mass testing was an essential part of the plan. The pinnacle of this is a man with a bucket of water and a bottle with a hole in it convincing anyone who wasn’t familiar with the actual figures that this was a fiendishly cunning plan to scupper Jonny-virus in his tracks. Unfortunately, many people were aware of the figures. Patrick Vallance had told us that the herd-immunity would need to see 60%, or 40 million people infected. The experience of other countries told us that we could expect a fifth of those, or 8 million to need hospital treatment. We could easily look up the numbers of available ICU beds at the time. It was 365.
hundred and sixty-five beds.
For eight million patients.
The bucket of water and plastic bottle pantomime stops looking so clever when you realise the real scale would be a full swimming pool and a smallish egg-cup. The severe cases aren’t 4 or 5 times the hospital capacity as this thing with the bucket implies. Try 20,000 times the capacity. At a week in hospital for each severe case, this tactic will take 421 years. Imagine if all the beds were available – they’re not – and all hospital beds were empty (they’re not) and suitable for corona patients (again, they’re not), and imagine the government managed to double the number of beds and to provide all the required staff and facilities to bring them into operation (they won’t), would that help? Of course it would help! If no one else gets ill from any other condition or has an accident, and if everyone who is currently ill gets better tomorrow, we would then only have 56 critically ill corona patients per available bed. Spread over time, deaths could be kept down to a million or two – in that fantasy world though, not in any actual world.
How such an obviously flawed policy could have made it into practice is anyone’s guess. There’s recent speculation that Dominic Cummings had a hand in this – even in the Murdoch owned rags that generally fawn over his every move and not long ago were defending his decision to hire an advocate of eugenics and rape. Would that be much of a surprise? Cummings has shown that he’s keen to embrace faux science if it’s quirky, counter-intuitive and suits his narrow and narcissistic world view. Even better if it’s actual science, with graphs and everything and produced by scientists, and it supports essentially doing nothing about the pandemic that might disrupt business or Brexit. It’s fine so long as no one looks at the detail. We can show them this graph with two humps – a bad hump that we’re going to avoid and a good hump that we’re setting our sights on. Small details can be glossed over. The detail that all our policies point to inaction, which actually puts us in line for the bad hump and the detail that the line representing our capacity is miles below even the good hump. Such minutiae are not for the likes of Cummings or Johnson. These are ideas men, a useful breed – except for the subset of their kind into which both Johnson and Cummings fall: ideas men whose ideas are all shit.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Trump who had spun off into full-on conspiraloon mode, declaring that the virus is a hoax (Feb 28th), is back on the minimiser trail claiming it’s really working out (March 10th), a lot of good things are going to happen (11th) and it’s going to go away (12th). Then suddenly on March 13th someone informs him that people are dying and his response is the only one it could ever have been: “No, I don’t take responsibility”. By the 16th he’s changed his tune: “This is a pandemic” and of course, by now, he’s known all along how serious the threat was – he was the first to realise: “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic” (17th).
A week later, distracted by something shiny, Trump has decided it wasn’t a big deal after all and is now preparing to lift the social distancing policies he’d half-heartedly allowed other people to apply over the past fortnight. Trump’s inaction and incompetence are slightly – but only slightly – mitigated by state and city authorities doing on a local level what he should have been doing nationally. Johnson has no equivalent back-up. The shift in the UK is stark. Only a week after the CSO was promoting the herd-immunity policy of letting the virus run through the population, the government had been forced to change direction – social distancing was introduced and schools closed their doors to most pupils for the foreseeable future. A week later Johnson announced strict rules intended to keep people at home, though he bodged the announcement so badly that even his own government were not clear on what he meant, resulting in at least five different messages being delivered that evening and the following morning.
It remains unclear how severe the crisis will become. In the UK it’s beyond reasonable doubt that it will be less serious than if the herd-immunity folly had been allowed to continue. Similarly, it’s vanishingly unlikely that it won’t be more serious than it could have been if sensible distancing measures had been introduced sooner. We’ll never know exactly how many lives have been lost due to the government’s denial and delay because – as the BBC have now revealed – the UK government is knowingly under-reporting deaths. The only thing that can be said with certainty about the situation in the States is that Trump’s lies have made things worse – as did his dismantling of the National Security Council’s global health security office.
When all of
this is over, both countries have some reflecting to do. Are we going to
continue to allow electoral minorities to inflict these crass, incompetent
buffoons upon us? As the rest of the world moves forward with plans to mitigate
inequality and to focus more on the quality of life and less on over-consumption
of ever more plastic shit, are we going with them, or are we going to watch
from the sidelines? Will the UK and the US be part of the gear-change into the
future, or are we condemned to look backwards – living on past glories because
they’re the only ones we have left? This won’t be the last crisis we face and
if we want to make less of a pig’s ear of the next one we could do with a
leader who hasn’t spent their life being gifted the win by the advantages they
did nothing to earn.
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 Back in what astonishingly now seem like the good old days of the 1980s, Tory ministers used to actually have to take the risk they were claiming to take – the odious Selwyn Gummer had to actually make his daughter eat a burger for the press in his idiotic attempt to downplay Mad Cow Disease – he couldn’t just lie about having done it and expect that to be enough.