Covid-19, sad politics

Updated March 29, 2020


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

COVID-19 is a threat to humanity and should have been seen as such, but some countries and leaders placed the well-being of their economy and other concerns above their citizens’ health — with predictable results.

Populist leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson thought they could wish away the deadly virus by ignoring the perils the pandemic would pose to their societies, so that their economies could continue to power ahead, while efforts to curb the infections could put brakes on economic growth.

Containment had to come through lockdowns and similar measures as was evident in China’s success. China got hold of the infections rate by the scruff of its neck and forced it down. This was reflected in the flattened and finally dipping curve in graphical representations of their statistics.

Of course lockdowns would inevitably have an impact on the economy. China was prepared to take whatever risks there were and was thus able curtail the loss of life by controlling the spread of the virus. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and similar leaders remained in denial because a virus that could not be wished away would, in the end, exact a toll on the economy in any case. Even as some leaders gave the impression that the health of the economy was their top priority, they did not have the means to make their markets Covid-19-proof.

It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the ‘low’ numbers.

Continental Europe took the virus seriously, but still got badly hit, particularly countries such as Italy and Spain, where the reasons for the high infections and the death toll will be researched and debated long after Covid-19 is consigned to oblivion. What is clear as we speak is that close family relations where children and grandchildren meet grandparents very frequently and tightly-packed apartment blocks and neighbourhood squares may have contributed to the spread.

Ironically, the ‘healthy’ Mediterranean diet and the highly-rated public healthcare systems in Italy and Spain may have contributed to the longevity of so many of their citizens who proved too frail to withstand the vicious onslaught of Covid-19 — thus ballooning the death toll.

Slowly, other reasons are also emerging as to why Italy and Spain seem so badly affected, compared to Germany and France, for example. Of course, the post-mortem analysis of the virus would confirm or rubbish some of the stories in the European media that make interesting reading.

These stories are casting doubts on some of the numbers released by Germany and France. For example, a French minister this week told a reporter that the government was not counting deaths in care homes for the elderly in the Covid-19 numbers. In Italy and Spain, these were a big contributor.

Germany undoubtedly has numerically the most robust healthcare system in Europe, with a much larger number of hospital beds per number of people than all others, but it has been suggested that Berlin’s Covid-19 stats do not show those who had ‘underlying conditions’ and died due to the virus.

The infections and death toll figures in Italy and Spain show each and every patient whose death is attributable to the virus. Despite these different methodologies producing different numbers, there is no doubt that lockdowns and mass testing has happened all over Continental Europe.

There are indications that these measures will soon lead to the dipping and flattening of the curve of infected patients that enables the healthcare systems to cope as there is a more predictable and steadier flow of patients needing assistance and treatment rather than a sudden peak or surge.

If the situation in Italy and Spain looks dreadful, I shudder to think how things will eventually be in the US and UK, where the authorities seemed to have what one astute commentator described as a “calculated but callous” plan on how to deal with the virus.

So far, polls in the US have indicated that a majority of the Americans approve of Trump’s ‘handling’ of the crisis. As the virus ravages larger swathes of the population in the US as it is threatening to, let us see if that rating can be sustained by the White House incumbent in an election year.

Similar fears of a serious challenge to the UK’s once enviable National Health Service are being expressed, especially since it has been consistently underfunded by the Conservatives who have been in office since 2010.

In fact, one way in which this crisis may lead to a different world is that after years of underfunding and even talk of massive privatisation of healthcare systems in Europe, following the 2008 economic crisis, publicly-funded systems will now receive a boost as governments will be forced to step up to the plate regardless of their ideologies.

Closer to home, where resources have always been scarce, some of our politicians in power continue to fail the people by their inability to rise above the fray and forge a consensus to deal with the pandemic. Kudos to the opposition leaders who have offered a helping hand to the government.

We are testing far fewer people than is being done in the developed world. It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the ‘low’ numbers. Some provincial governments appear on the ball. Good on them!

One really wishes our government had one focus: how to ease the pain of the shirtless majority in a medical emergency of the kind the world has not known in a century and one, and which will inevitably lead to a recession and massive unemployment.

But we see equal focus on the persecution of political opponents and independent media through fabricated cases and other authoritarian measures such as arrests and intimidation. If ever there was a case of misplaced priorities, it is this.

I used to be an optimist. But seeing the self-righteous narcissism that appears to be driving this policy, I am slowly being filled with despair. And I hate it.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020