A world apart

April 19, 2020

Now is the time for governments to speak of cooperation - not of conspiracies

Courtesy: Getty Images

Dear All,

The American president, aka The Donald, never fails to act in an objectionable manner. You can absolutely depend upon him to be rude, sexist, divisive, bigoted, arrogant, parochial and just generally outrageous. His demeanour throughout the Covid-19 crisis is a case in point: there was his repeated reference to the virus as the ‘Chinese virus’, his refusal to take coherent measures in terms of screening returning US residents properly, his denial of the seriousness of the coronavirus situation, and his insistence that it wasn’t his responsibility because state governors were the ones who had to make the key decisions which he later cancelled out with his insistence that he could override governors’ directives because “when somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.”

The claim was constitutionally incorrect but, hey, that’s okay because a majority of the president’s statements are not factual (now he’s berating democratic governors for being ‘mutineers’). But he continues to shock — from making statements like saying professional sports across America need to resume simply because he ‘was bored of watching repeats’ to making announcements like that of halting funding the World Health Organisation; the man is far from predictable. But, perhaps predictably, the leader of the ‘free world’ is behaving in a manner not unlike that of many rightwing, isolationist governments in the West.

The UK government, for example, is behaving similarly in its repeated insistence on the Brexit mantra. Technically, Britain is still part of the EU and entitled to certain facilities but the way Brexit politics – the Tories’ current raison d’etre – have influenced the government’s actions during the pandemic borders on the criminal. Reportedly, the UK ‘missed three opportunities to be part of an EU scheme to bulk buy personal protective equipment for health workers’, even though NHS staff are desperate for proper PPE and nearly very day you hear of the death of a nurse or doctor or other frontline NHS worker. Similarly, the government did not avail of an EU scheme to get extra ventilators claiming that ‘it missed the deadline because of a communications mix-up.’ Hmmm. What it did instead was get some British companies working on ventilators some of which medical professionals then deemed not of the standard needed to treat ICU Covid-19 patients (this happened in the case of Formula One products). Incidentally, the UK needs at least 18,000 more ventilators.

The coronavirus lockdown has been about physical isolation, sealing borders and restricting movement but what was truly needed in a crisis of this scale was for countries to come together in the fight against the virus. WHO, which was attempting to manage the crisis, had declared a pandemic (on March 11th) and since then was looked to by the whole world as a source of information and expertise on related developments but it is now being smeared by people like Trump and accused of being a mouthpiece for Chinese ‘disinformation.’

This undermining of the World Health Organisation is destructive and irresponsible and bodes ill for the future. Bill Gates, whose global foundation gives substantial funds to WHO, termed Trump’s decision as ‘dangerous.’ And indeed it does seem dangerous to, at this crucial time, damage the credibility and denounce the very organisation which has been devoted to looking at health issues on a global scale and which has worked so hard to coordinate the fight against so many different diseases. Trump’s Fortress America mindset is not unlike Britain’s Fortress Brexit one: both assume that they can work in isolation and for their own people only. Even the insidious nature of The Virus has not illustrated to them that this is an enemy that knows no borders. The Covid-19 death toll in the USA is now well over 39,000 and in Britain that figure is around 15,000 (and rising) yet both governments, despite the relief measures they are putting in place, continue to function according to an isolationist and short-term agenda.

Trump and the Conservatives are similar in that both have a history of being unsupportive of public healthcare and workers’ rights. Now they are being forced to provide emergency measures to support both. But perhaps their thinking remains that when this is all over we’ll just go back to the sort of economic model and the sort of systems that can enrich those of their ilk. So yes, this is an emergency but we need to be very careful that decisions are questioned and critiqued and it is recognised that this is not just motivated by political point scoring. In Britain, several Tory ministers have suggested that it is inappropriate to criticise and question government decisions in the current lockdown as this is a national emergency. Yes, we need to unite but these actions cannot be allowed without some level of scrutiny and accountability, because not to ask questions now is itself irresponsible.

Now is the time for governments to speak of cooperation not conspiracies, else we will see more of the stupidities that last week resulted in incidents in England that seem well worthy of the Trump theatre of absurdities: in Hull some teenagers outside a hospital smashed the windows of a bus used to transport NHS staff while in London the 5G phone mast for the new coronavirus hospital was attacked by people who apparently believe that 5G technology is linked to the spread of the coronavirus.

The virus threatens not just our physical health but also our thinking; this is a time when we should be careful to protect our intellectual faculties: question, critique and analyse, not be swayed by wild conspiracy theories and insular beliefs but instead evaluate events and claims in a rational and levelheaded manner.

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

Donald Trump never fails to act in an objectionable manner