Saturday June 25, 2022

Wars and pandemics

October 14, 2020

Watching the antics of Trump and the blunders of Boris Johnson in failing to cope with the virus, I have the same feeling I had repeatedly over the last 20 years when reporting on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. In all cases, arrogant assumptions of competence and strength were brutally exposed by complicated and dangerous realities on the ground.

The spectacular ineptitude of Trump and Johnson masks the extent to which the decline of the Anglo-American political elite long predates their arrival in power. The consequences of these long-term failings for the US and UK only became clear this year as the number of their citizens dying has soared above the figure for comparable powers. Trump’s comic opera boasts about ‘Making America Great Again’ and Johnson’s puerile boosterism for ‘Global Britain’ sounds more and more pathetic.

Governments of all stripes see wars, natural disasters and, most recently, epidemics as an existential threat to themselves, but also as an opportunity. Get it wrong and they may put themselves out of business for good. Get it right and they could strengthen their grip on power for decades. Frequently, they come spectacularly unstuck because of an exaggerated idea of their own capabilities. They underestimate their enemy, be it a human agency or a virus, and flounder when combating a real threat.

Most governments are good at producing plausible policies, but are alarmed and found wanting when these supposed strategies have to be implemented. Politicians are often poor at the complex business of “operationalising” policies and taken aback when they discover that the results of past mistakes cannot be put right on the night.

The record of the Johnson government is a caricature of this approach. It conveys an air of baffled amateurism as successive lockdowns and quasi-lockdowns flounder and fail. It does not see that attempts to transform the well-established patterns of behaviour of millions of people cannot succeed by simply announcing new regulations and threatening heavy fines for those who do not obey them.

For all the furore about new restrictions in the north of England, a more important question is how far people are complying with the old ones. There is strong evidence that pervasive non-adherence is the answer to Sir Keir Starmer’s question – unanswered by Johnson – this week about why 19 out of 20 areas subject to restrictions over the last two months are still showing a sharp rise in infections.

A convincing reason for why lockdowns are not working comes in a little-remarked survey by King’s College, London, showing a vast disparity between the proportion of people who say they will quarantine and those who actually do so. A survey of 31,787 people living in the UK between March and August reveals that 70 per cent of people who had not experienced Covid-19 symptoms in the previous week said that they intended to self-isolate, if they did develop these key symptoms, and 50 per cent said they would request an antigen test.

But the survey also shows that people mostly do not follow through on their good intentions. The crucial passage says that “of those that reported the key Covid-19 symptoms in the last week, 18.2 per cent reported that they had self-isolated and 11.9 per cent reported that they had requested an antigen test”. The reasons for the exceptionally low compliance with restrictions is that poor people find that they have to give priority to making a living and looking after children and other relatives.

Excerpted from: ‘Wars and Pandemics Produce the Same Sort of Lethal Government Bungling’