Rules or guidance over Covid19: an authoritarian problem

The government’s authoritarian approach to Covid19 has tilted the balance from medical sense to a demand for obedience — this isn’t good either for civil liberties, or handling the medical, social and economic problems caused by the pandemic.

The outbreak of an infectious and serious illness is a global problem. It needs mature and collaborative leadership. Sadly a failure of leadership in the UK has been making the situation worse.

An illness that kills some, makes many more very seriously ill, and yet leaves others unscathed, is a perfect storm. Those who want to say “it’s nothing” or “it’s no worse than the flu” can find plenty of people to illustrate their point, and yet intensive care units and mortuaries show that they are ignoring reality.

One of the reasons why discrimination does so much harm is that people are treated as “bad” or “less” because they are “different” for reasons that actually don’t matter. One of the emotional problems with Covid19 is that it has echoes of all of these things. Soon after the first UK lockdown began I went into a local supermarket and saw a manager remonstrating with a black man who had (apparently) been failing to keep his distance: the black man responded by pointing out (entirely accurately) that there were lots of white people in the store who were also not keeping their distance. This isn’t just Covid19 mobilising discrimination — it’s Covid19 mobilising the sort of really raw anxieties that lead to discrimination. It’s to treat people as “untouchables”, and treat oneself as an “untouchable”, with all the negative overtones of that. It adds a layer of emotional baggage to the very good medical reasons for keeping a sensible physical distance.

The problem is how we juggle medical good sense, emotional reactions that point in another direction, and all the not-so-rational anxieties that come to the surface when we are afraid.

Here, political leaders have a choice and something to offer. They can offer the sort of stable containment which effectively says “we have a medical problem here, and this is how we can deal with it”, or get mobilised to express people’s fears and reactions to their fears.

Donald Trump has provided a ghastly example of the latter by talking-down the virus. It’s not clear whether he’s led this, or given voice to what his supporters want to hear, but there’s a higher incidence of Covid19 in Republican areas and his rallies seem to have led to 30,000 additional cases and 700 additional deaths. The implication is that, far from offering leadership that makes people’s lives better, he’s enabled significant suffering by telling them to ignore what they don’t want to face.

Angela Merkel getting it right

At the opposite extreme from Donald Trump, Angela Merkel made a broadcast about Covid19 in March 2020, that has been widely praised and recently described as “the speech of the year” where she struck a sombre tone grounded in medical sense.

A fortnight before Christmas 2020 she made another, widely-praised speech, returning to the same theme, commenting both on the tragedy “if we spend Christmas with our grandparents and that’s the last time we see them”, her experience growing up in East Germany (with a government showing scant respect for personal liberty or truth), and, again, drawing on her scientific background talk realistically of the problem.

The key point is that she’s recognising the realities of medicine, of economics, and of people’s emotions in a way that discharges anxiety rather than fuelling it.

The UK getting it wrong

The messaging in the UK has been different and mistaken. Talk of public health has tended to slide behind talk of “the rules”, as if obedience itself is what offers protection. That, unhelpfully, muddles people’s trust in the government with medical reality. This is particularly sharp when lockdowns have harmed people economically and the government’s attempts to mitigate the harm have been uneven — around 3 million people have received no help and many more have their trust in government challenged by financial struggle.

Back in the spring there was a suggestion that the first lockdown was delayed for political reasons, pushing up the death toll in that period from 15,700 to 36,700. For the autumn lockdown there’s also a suggestion that the SAGE committee’s advice to lockdown over the school half term was ignored — even though it was obvious that people would meet over Christmas and so made sense to bring infection down. The sense of “politics” triumphing over health hasn’t helped anyone. Neither has the mis-handling of the identification of a more infectious strain, used as the reason for a last-minute tightening of the rules for Christmas. Anna Mikhailova from the Mail on Sunday was spot on in the press conference where the change was announced when she said:

“Prime Minister, you said earlier that when the facts change, you have to change your approach. But the facts three days ago where you knew about the new strain and you knew that infections were rising, and still you said it was too late to cancel Christmas. How do you expect people to follow the rules when they keep changing?”

That is three days after Johnson had mocked Kier Starmer for suggesting a change to the rules as the situation was changing.

This drives an unhelpful wedge between “doing what’s medically wise” and “doing what the government says”, where we might have hoped that the government would be providing public health guidance and introducing rules as needed where were clearly based on that guidance.

At the start of the lockdown I wrote a blog post linking the denial of reality over Covid and over Brexit after a controversy arising from a tweet from my independent (pro-Brexit) opponent in the 2019 General Election. With the passage of time, this has looked like a wider trend, with Dominic Cummings ill-judged trip to Durham in apparent breach of the first lockdown rules, and the creation of a “Covid Recovery Research Group” among Tory MPs, apparently modelled on the “European Research Group” and co-ordinating resistance to further lockdown.

Brexiteer Tory Desmond Swayne MP has provided two extraordinary snapshots of the mindset. In July he was describing the use of masks as a “monstrous imposition” that would stop him going to shops at all (one wonders who does his grocery shopping). In September, with infection rates rising he dismissed the advice of Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance as “Project Fear” — repeating the Brexiteer pattern of denying reality and attacking experts. That’s a stark contrast with both Germany and Belgium, where the lead in public announcements has been taken by public health experts — rightly locating the engagement with Covid19 in the sphere of public health rather than politics.

Lockdown sceptics looking wistfully at Sweden’s more relaxed approach have overlooked sociological factors that might have helped (such as Europe’s highest proportion of people living alone), and now reality has caught up, and Sweden is needing to send Covid patients to Norway and Denmark.

Jingoistic attempts to claim that the UK started vaccinating people sooner than other nations because we are somehow “better” don’t help — the Pfizer vaccine that started to be distributed in December 2020 was developed by a Turk who’d moved to Germany and is being manufactured in Belgium. Contrary to the wilder claims of British ministers, it’s release wasn’t helped by Brexit — it was released under the EU rules applying up to the end of 2020. There have also been some cavalier references to the release of the vaccine as “V day” mobilising completely irrelevant associations to the Second World War which also, unhelpfully, give the impression of something being given priority over medical good sense.

This chaos has consequences. When the Christmas change in rules happened, one tiny snapshot of the disruption was this tweet:

Sadly this doesn’t build trust in government.

Making (limited) sense of lockdown sceptics

I can get my head round lockdown scepticism if it’s actually about people being afraid and a failure by political leaders to enable a mature dependency that can contain those fears. Unfortunately, that failure makes the medical situation worse.

An example comes from the story of Jodi Doering, an American Emergency Room nurse
tweeting about people coming into hospital, seriously ill with Covid19, and assuming it must be something else, having bought the story that “it’s no worse than the flu”:

“I think the hardest thing to watch is that people are still looking for something else and they want a magic answer and they don’t want to believe that Covid is real … their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening, it’s not real’.”

It isn’t comfortable to recognise how vulnerable we are, that the pressure for efficiency in our NHS has meant that there isn’t the spare capacity to cope with something as serious as a pandemic would be if we don’t change our behaviour.

This denial isn’t entirely new: more people died in the 1918-20 flu pandemic than in the First World War, but we find it easier to name and grieve the war deaths.

The point about lockdown scepticism is that people are afraid both of Covid19 and of what it represents — and what it represents is a collection of ill-defined anxieties. Lockdowns help with the real medical issues, but not the other anxieties. Telling people they can ignore what is making them anxious doesn’t reduce the numbers of people becoming seriously ill or dying — or the fear this induces.

Rules or…

In the UK, the emphasis on rules has shifted the narrative from “do what is medically necessary” to “obey the rules” works for people for whom rule-following feels safe. But with a government flip-flopping on lots of issues, not least an “oven-ready” Brexit deal that then took a year to finalise, it leaves a lot of uncontained anxiety.

A sense that rule changes are driven as much by political expediency as medical necessity doesn’t help. Neither do rumours of the influence of the anxieties that have landed us with Brexit being stirred up by many of the same people in the “Covid Recovery Research Group”. Boris Johnson will find t hard to ignore them — even though mature leadership of the sort shown by Angela Merkel says he must do this. An understandable response to this is for people to say “this doesn’t feel safe, I’ll trust my own instincts”. That’s not helpful when few of us have the public health knowledge to make informed decisions. Crucially it puts the anxieties mobilised by Covid19 into the driving seat rather than medical reality. Lacan’s “discourse of the hysteric” seems a good summary.

This also encourages people to “do their own research”, which seems to mean hunting online until they find something they agree with, or “anti-vaxxers” to listen to their own anxieties rather than medical science. This has serious implications as the suggestion is that ending the pandemic needs 70% of the population to be immune.

Marginalising expertise and mature dependency, and stirring up people’s irrational anxieties, sets the stage for a very authoritarian style of leadership. That’s seductive for the Prime Minister, as the one wielding the authority, but not good for the country — especially if real financial hardships arising from Covid19 and Brexit in push up anxiety levels even further.

Postscript: wisdom from Tony Blair

After writing and posting this article, I came across one by Tony Blair in The Independent, where he’s talking with wisdom and pragmatism about how to get Covid19 vaccination done in 2021. The gap between Boris Johnson’s “bluff and bluster” and Tony Blair is striking. He’s much closer to the wisdom of Angela Merkel. It’s also a stark illustration of how the helter-skelter rush towards “Brexit-at-all-costs” has sucked the sanity out of British politics. Perhaps I was right to suggest it should be thought of as a from of religious fundamentalism a couple of years ago, and I am sure that people make a mistake when they seek to disregard Blair because of Iraq.

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