The Politics of a Pandemic

A crisis like no other

It is now clear that we face a global health emergency as a result of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus.  The evolving pandemic, which is unlike anything we have faced in living memory, is beginning to reveal a ‘politics of disaster’ as we are able to compare and contrast different national strategies to contain the disease and to protect populations.  

It is also likely to lead to a global economic recession on the scale of 2008.  That was a financial earthquake with aftershocks.  The pandemic, on the other hand, could be a far more grinding economic and social crisis that leaves populations psychologically traumatised and with changed patterns of behaviour.  However, amidst the looming crisis there are also opportunities – learning how to address a disaster era; developing a more social and participatory approach to policy and practice; and then applying these lessons to the much greater threat of the climate emergency.

The deviant approach of Johnson and his advisors

The pandemic is also beginning to reveal different political and policy responses.  Already we can see that the approach of the Johnson Government is seriously out of kilter with that of many other countries.  From China and South Korea onwards, national governments have been trying to control the spread of the virus by testing, quarantining and controlling social interaction.  China has succeeded in curtailing COVID-19.  Their eventual toll is 81,000 infected with over 3000 deaths, mostly in Hubei Province.  The point to note here is that through draconian measures, popular compliance and extensive testing only 0.0056 per cent of the Chinese population have been affected by the virus.  Here politicians blithely talk of the potential of 80 per cent infection rates.

A dangerous idea that is being toyed with by government is that of ‘herd immunity’.  While science of containment is inconclusive, this particular approach to the disease is premised on the assumption that the spread of the virus to most of the population will result in a degree of immunity and through this the epidemic can eventually be brought under control.  However, it is an extremely risky approach because there is no guarantee that the more vulnerable can be protected while the disease makes its way through the population.  Even if the fatality rate proves to be as low as one per cent, the outcome of 50 million contracting the disease in the UK (80 per cent of the population required to achieve herd immunity) could result in 500,000 deaths.  Put simply, the cavalier thinking behind this approach faces accusations of social murder.

And we have to look at the interplay between political and medical thinking.  Whitty and Vallance – the chief medical and scientific advisors – who flanked Johnson at his recent press conference when he solemnly declared that ‘more loved ones would be lost before their time’, could well have tailored their medical and scientific advice to be acceptable to a government that has previously poured scorn on expertise.  In this sense, the advisors could be seen to have been co-opted into the Johnson ideological and political project. 

Arguments for delaying the impact of the virus and focusing resources on the most vulnerable over the medium-term make sense.  However, there is a lack of guidance as to what this might be.  All that has been said so far is to self-isolate if you have symptoms and call 111 if things get worse.  There is presently the feeling that the population is simply being left to its own devices.  Moreover, the decision to now test only in the most extreme cases is negligent and, unsurprisingly, has come under fire from the WHO.  Apart from the appearance of giving up on controlling the spread of the disease, this selective approach undermines the research base because we will have little idea of its extent or any detail of its patterns. 

Austerity, social pessimism and the lack of leadership

Two shadows hang over the Government’s response.  The first is a decade of austerity and the stripping out of resilience of our health and social care systems and the public sector more generally.  The supposed pragmatism of Johnson and his advisors is based on the lack of health resources with, for example, the current availability of only 5,000 acute beds in the NHS compared with 25,000 in Germany.  Interestingly Germany has so far recorded nearly 4,000 cases but with only eight deaths.  The key to their low mortality rate is probably the mass availability of acute care.

The second is social pessimism – all the talk is about ‘behavioural fatigue’ and the necessary psychological manipulations of the faddish Nudge Theory.  This market-based form of thinking reflects an ideological and cultural inability to appeal to the population to make sacrifices for the common good and then to provide the necessary leadership. 

Other countries, by way of contrast, are being far more decisive.  Our government, supported by a contested science, appears happy to let things drift (the so-called long game), only to be blindsided by actions of sports associations and care homes who have decided to take action to enforce social distancing.  Viewed from the other side of the Atlantic the New York Times went as far as to suggest that the Johnson Government sought to shield its economy, but to sacrifice its people. However, even the complacency of the UK Government pales in comparison with the idiocy and flailing of the Trump Administration that has veered from calling COVID-19 a Democrat hoax to declaring a national emergency.

Overcoming Labour’s silence

Thus far Labour, absorbed in its internal politics, has kept a Trappist-like silence.  Apart from the intervention of Gordon Brown and his call for international co-ordination, little has been heard from the Labour leadership or the contestants.  However, today Lisa Nandy has called for Marshall-style plan to support the elderly and vulnerable and workers in the gig economy. 

The Johnson Government will undoubtedly be found wanting – the only question will be the scale of the disaster.  Labour, therefore, has an early and unique opportunity to show how governments should lead and how people can be mobilised to face the common threat.  But to do this it needs to go much further than the interventions suggested so far and develop a comprehensive analysis and strategy – making use of international comparison, what other governments are doing and the call for a global response; insisting that bold action be taken in the UK to control the spread of the disease and questioning the ‘herd immunity’ approach; linking the fight against COVID-19 with a stronger and resilient public realm and, crucially, the role of social solidarity and the culture of care. 

Labour and the Left more broadly also have an opportunity to point to the type of economy and society that becomes more ‘socially disaster-prepared’.  This should include demands to mobilise all health resources both public and private; to press the case for better childcare; social care and social protection that not only help the vulnerable but also shield the most economically active so they can ride out these shocks.  It is worth remembering that while the elderly are the most vulnerable in health terms, it is the young that are most exposed economically.

As of mid-March the situation is moving swiftly as the pandemic takes hold.  The Government’s ‘laissez-faire’ approach has been criticised by 300 scientists who have called for stronger actions, akin to those being taken in other countries.  Driven by events, Johnson the ‘shapeshifter’ may try to reinvent himself once again, this time in a Churchillian mode, as the country is propelled towards a war footing. 

While the pandemic could bring untold suffering, it also offers a unique opportunity to press the case for a more protective, caring and resilient society that is able to collectively confront the existential threats of our time.  It will also have to be a time of maximum transparency and learning, with scientific information and the debates being made accessible to the whole population, so that out of the crisis society as a whole emerges stronger and wiser.

Ken Spours is a Professor of Post-compulsory Education at UCL Institute of Education and a Compass activist.

One thought on “The Politics of a Pandemic

  1. Excellent – and good for Lisa Nandy (though I am not sure invoking the Marshal plan is appropriate in the Trump era- but still we must ask ‘where is Labour?

    Since this was written the Government has moved a bit but more pressure is needed if we are going to make up for the price of years of austerity .

    The positives are worth stressing for a re-invigorated Labour Party – it will be impossible for the Tories to play down the role of government and the state anymore when they have been forced to use both themselves- you only have to look at the consequences of Bolsanaro for Brazil – and as Ken says even a Conservative-led Germany have minimised mortality- Labour can build on this and broaden the argument to include industrial educational and climate policy- a point John Goldthorpe makes so clearly in his interview this week in the Guardian

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