Logic behind the madness
Eddie Ford reports on the many failures of the UK and US governments
Scoring an unwanted record, the UK now has the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe. It now exceeds Italy, previously the worst-hit country on the continent. But regardless of flattening peaks and all the rest of it, UK deaths are way beyond the 20,000 which at one stage would have been judged a “good result”.
There has been the controversy last week over health secretary Matt Hancock’s achievement in hitting the target of 100,000 tests a day. There seems to have been some statistical jiggery-pokery, however, as that figure includes multiple tests on the same person and about 39,000 test kits that had been sent out to households and satellite testing locations but not yet processed. It also emerged that, of the 122,347 tests claimed, one third of them - notched up in the final 24-hour period before the deadline expired - were counted, even though they had not been actually carried out. Ministers are facing ongoing criticism, as the number of daily tests, with the pressure off, has already dropped below 80,000 - care home staff in particular reporting difficulties in getting home kits delivered. This will all come back to bite the health secretary.
Having said that, though it is absolutely right to question the figures, the substantial increase in the number of tests that have been carried out shows what can be done with a concerted collective effort - the idea that the target could be met if things were just left to ‘the market’ is obviously absurd. Rather, it was a political decision requiring state coordination and state power. You also have to ask, if you can actually manage 100,000 virus tests a day, then why can’t homelessness be tackled with the same sort of vigour? To which there is an obvious answer - if the political will was there, it would be sorted out in next to no time. As an indication of what could be done, look at the £3.2 million which magically appeared in emergency support for rough sleepers - the government has pushed for the setting up of “local coordination cells”, including local councils and the NHS, charged with the task of “urgently procuring” accommodation for people on the streets and “securing access” to food and medical care for rehoused people. Such measures were previously deemed dangerously socialistic. Presumably, once the epidemic is over or has been severely mitigated, they will be kicked out onto the streets again - normal market forces restored.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths in the US is now over 72,000 - the highest in the world, though clearly America’s actual death rate is lower than that in countries like the UK or Italy, given its much higher population. Nevertheless, the situation in the US is appalling, with the number of daily coronavirus deaths projected to double by June to 3,000. Alarmingly, cases are rising in both cities and rural areas. Yet criminally, faced with such a threat, the White House is planning to disband its virus task force. Vice-president Mike Pence said on May 5 that the Trump administration was “starting to look” at the Memorial Day window (late May) as a time when the country “could begin to transition back” to managing affairs “in a more traditional manner”, because of the “tremendous progress” that has been made - an outlook terrifyingly at odds with reality.
More than half the 50 states are now attempting to ease or escape the lockdown measures, those led by Republican governors wanting to move more swiftly. At the same time we have witnessed relatively sizeable demonstrations by the far right against the lockdown, with the aim of ‘taking back’ Michigan, New York, California, etc. These protests have been encouraged by Donald Trump - an extraordinary situation in many respects: could you imagine previous presidents doing such a thing? The US does show all the sign of being a malfunctioning state.
Then again, something not totally dissimilar is happening in Britain, with increased rumbling of discontent from the Tory right and the likes of Nigel Farage. They are unhappy at the ‘arbitrary’ coronavirus measures, which they say need to be ended as soon as possible to ‘restore our liberties’ - Boris Johnson having promised to unveil a “roadmap” for exiting the lockdown by the end of the week. Steve Baker, former minister and European Research Group member, has branded some of the restrictions “absurd, dystopian and tyrannical”. He complained that the police had begun enforcing the restrictions before legislation had even been passed - “stopping people on trains and, in one case, overturning a barbecue”.
Discontent from the right and large sections of business will surely grow, especially if the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, starts to wind down the coronavirus furlough scheme next month - the treasury is examining several options for tapering the scheme, including cutting the 80% wage subsidy paid by the state to 60% and lowering the £2,500 cap on monthly payments. Another idea actively promoted by employers’ groups is to allow furloughed staff to work, but with a smaller state subsidy. Figures released this week show that a total of 6.3 million workers have been temporarily laid off by 800,000 companies - Boris Johnson might struggle to keep a lid on the situation.
As reported before in this publication, the right on both sides of the Atlantic is trying to demonise China over coronavirus - more driven by the politics of envy than anything else, given the dismal record of Britain and America on the Covid-19 question. The latest offering, naturally enough, appeared in The Sun, which treated us to a “bombshell” dossier, claiming that China “lied to the world” by covering up the outbreak and laying “the foundation for a case” against the country for its handling of the deadly disease. The article also claimed that a laboratory in Wuhan, “not far from the now infamous wet market”, had been “studying” deadly bat-derived coronaviruses (May 2). All very sinister.
Everyone knows how China’s instinctive reaction was to be less than candid about the true nature of the viral outbreak - ingrained Stalinist habits die hard, although, of course, governments generally find it hard to admit mistakes, as we know from Britain and the US. But we are hardly shocked or horrified about the Wuhan lab studying bat viruses - we hope to god that Imperial College London, or a similar institute, is doing the same right now. We know that bats are teeming with viruses, but do not get affected, making them ideal storehouses for transmission to other species and from there to humans.
But, of course, the deliberate inference is that the ‘Wuhan study’ was in order to develop biological weapons - an absolutely ludicrous idea. We did not need the current pandemic to be aware that the spread of such viruses cannot easily be controlled and restricted to a given state. But keep stirring things up anyway - like the ignorant US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, saying on May 3 that there is “enormous evidence” that the coronavirus outbreak originated in a Chinese laboratory. Not that he provided a shred of evidence. Trump himself made a similar unsupported claim a few days earlier. He was, he said, “privy” to evidence of the pandemic beginning in a Chinese lab, but was “not permitted” to share it. Talk about desperation. You would not use something like Covid-19 as a weapon, as it would end up killing your own population as well. Of course, the intelligence agencies know that - they have informed Trump and Pompeo that there is no evidence whatsoever to back up such claims.
Clearly, given the appalling way the virus has been handled by the US government, Donald Trump wants to divert attention from home - that is why the “Chinese virus” and the Democrats’ ‘softness’ on China is going to be the line from now on. Whether that clinches it for Trump in the election, assuming it goes ahead, is another matter - but for convenience sake in this period, China is going to be public enemy number one.
Trump’s behaviour may be regarded as pure irrationality and nothing else, but that would be a mistake. Behind all this is the logical imperative for an imperial pushback against China and the need to manage the relative decline of the US - he is just doing it an entirely different way from Obama.