Bigger questions

06 Apr 2020

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The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

THE UK is looking ahead to a bleak Easter. The country’s death toll from the coronavirus is higher than Italy’s at the same stage of the outbreak, and there is as yet no sign of the curve flattening, with fatalities roughly doubling every three days. The next few weeks are a crucial indicator of whether social distancing measures have worked. Either way, the UK’s experience holds several global lessons for pandemics or other national crises.

One. Lack of leadership is a life and death issue. The confusion around UK’s strategic approach to tackling coronavirus — an initial plan to achieve ‘herd immunity’ followed by a policy U-turn and intense social distancing approach to ‘flatten the curve’ — persists in the country’s approach to testing. Despite WHO’s exhortation to ‘test, test, test’, the leadership remains ambivalent. The government has gone from capping the number of NHS workers it would test for the virus to vowing to test 100,000 people per day by the end of the month. Details on how it will achieve this target are ambiguous. The vacillation will impact the country’s outcomes in the fight against this pandemic.

Two. There is no place for petty politics in a pandemic (or any global crisis). Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has faced accusations of putting ‘Brexit over breathing’ after the UK failed to participate in an EU-wide scheme to procure ventilators. The government claimed to have overlooked a deadline, but media reports indicate the decision was likely political and face-saving for the pro-Brexit prime minister. This politicking seems criminal as the NHS falls short of ventilators.

Three. Use data, but always question it. News headlines are crowded with statistics of the previous day’s death toll, an indicator of the success of the battle against coronavirus and the state of the curve. But scientists and journalists have emphasised in recent days that these figures are inaccurate — there is a time delay in reported deaths, and the stats only cover hospital deaths, not those in the wider community. Pursuing more accurate data has to be part of the response to this crisis.

Britain’s leadership remains ambivalent.

Four. Politicians should read the fine print. The Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has received global praise for the promise that the state will pay 80 per cent of wages of workers kept on the payrolls of companies affected by the crisis. He could have stopped there and enjoyed the plaudits. But he has had to return to the plan several times to expand it to cover different types of workers. Such iterative policymaking is essential.

Five. A free — and well-regulated — media is a crucial component of (inter)national crisis management. The British media is keeping the government accountable; newspapers that have traditionally supported the Conservative party have harshly criticised the government’s approach, particularly on testing for the virus. At the same time, the media regulator is ensuring the media plays a productive role in the crisis, recently warning broadcasters against disseminating conspiracy theories linking the virus to the roll-out of 5G services.

Six. The public needs something to believe in. People coming out on their balconies to clap for the NHS. An overwhelming response to a government call for volunteers. A hospital being constructed in nine days. These small victories keep up public morale, and continue to motivate adherence to social distancing rules. Such rallying is key in a crisis in which public behaviour is core to the fight back (perhaps we in Pakistan should lay off the Corona Relief Tiger Force?).

Seven. It’s not too early to look ahead. Around the world, the focus is on the fatality numbers, the lack of protective equipment for healthcare workers, the paucity of ventilators, the race for a vaccine. But at some point the pandemic will subside. And we will be left with bigger questions. How do we rebuild more resilient societies? How do we address the inequalities that have been both highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic? How do we better prepare for such existential crises? Will coronavirus be the turning point in our global response to climate change?

The real work will start after the immediate crisis passes. But the seeds of the political polarisation that may emerge are already being planted. Brexiters and remainers, pro- and anti-immigration, climate advocates and change deniers will recast themselves as the ‘back to normal’ brigade versus the ‘reimagine and rebuild’ squad. The only way to pre-empt a divisive, counterproductive debate in the aftermath is to start having open, inclusive discussions while we’re all unified by the threat of the pandemic. Politicians must start that debate now, and ensure a high quality dialogue — nothing less than humanity’s future depends on it.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2020