The UK and Covid-19 Crisis

Photograph Source: Sanshiro KUBOTA – CC BY 2.0

The UK has been preoccupied with its roiling Brexit psychodrama since 2016.

Brexit has to be seen in the larger context of the UK’s incomplete recovery from the 2008 financial crisis—a context which not only complicated the Brexit imbroglio, but also served as a wider arena for the exposure of several fractures in the UK’s political and constitutional arrangements.

These unresolved fractures— social (class divisions especially); economic (growing income disparities); cultural (the “culture wars” are integral to electoral alignments around Brexit); regional (the north-south divide); national (it is easy to forget that the UK is a multinational state, and the issue of Scottish nationalism and the status of northern Ireland featured prominently in Brexit decision-making); and European—are a further underlying context for the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

BoJo Johnson has now tested positive for the virus, along with his health minister, and Prince Charles.

BoJo, who has only one register affording him ease and comfort, a breezy nonchalance, was bragging a short time before that about how he visited hospitals (for photo ops) and shook the hands of everyone he encountered.

The mainstream media should have shown him little sympathy for his reckless self-inflating opportunism, though this was not forthcoming. After all, the preening bastard was putting frontline health professionals at risk in an absolutely vital time merely for his photo ops.

BoJo is 55 years old, and thus not really in one of the COVID-19 risk categories (unless, given his unrelenting erotic enthusiasm, an undisclosed sexually-transmitted disease turns out to be a medical issue potentially complicating his positive test-finding), so he’ll survive this.

But, as is the case with his pal Trump in the US, something like the equivalent of a nation-wide Stockholm Syndrome has kicked in for BoJo.

BoJo, though not the proverbial rocket scientist, is much better informed generally (and less demented!) than his orange-hued American counterpart, and so, for instance, knows that hospitals caring for COVID-19 patients need more than 2 ventilators each, and that making egregious suggestions regarding possible “cures” for the virus is best left to those better trained in science and medicine!

At the same time, shades of Trump, BoJo’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis, while cavalier and careless, has actually ensued in a significant increase in his UK opinion-poll popularity!

The world is of course a rather strange place, but this is pretty much the functional equivalent of an inept African despot increasing his 89% popularity-rating to 99% simply because the Ebola virus afflicted his country, as he did fuck-all about it until it was too late!

Social media has invoked the Stockholm Syndrome as the most plausible explanation of such irrationality.

There are now 17,089 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the UK, with 1,228 deaths. However, the total number of people tested for the virus was 120,776, as of Saturday morning (testing began at the end of January).

Given that the UK’s population is just under 68 million, the number of people tested so far is pathetically small, and it is fair to assume that there are people with the virus among those untested.

The government wants to increase the number of tests to 10,000 a day by the end of March and 25,000 a day by mid-April.

Among the dead are 2 frontline NHS surgeons, their deaths almost certainly caused by a lack of adequate protective equipment.

BoJo has been all over the place in his response to the crisis.

He rejected EU coordination for the production and availably of ventilators (the UK is a member of the EU until the end of this year), fearing that this collaboration would be seen by hardline Brexiters as a weakening of his resolve to leave the EU.

BoJo urged people to stay away from at-risk relatives before telling reporters he would be going to see his mother on Mother’s Day (which fell on 22nd March in the UK).

In the letter being sent to 30 million households at an anticipated cost of £5.8m/$7.2m, BoJo writes mendaciously: “From the start, we have sought to put in the right measures at the right time. We will not hesitate to go further if that is what the scientific and medical advice tells us we must do”.

Not often mentioned at length by the government are the economic consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak. The costs incurred by Brexit will almost certainly put the UK economy into recession, and this will be compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

UK economic output is expected to fall by an unprecedented 15% in the second quarter of 2020, and unemployment to more than double, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), as businesses shut down and consumer spending plunges as a result of wide-scale lockdowns.

All this is in spite of £330bn/$411bn of government-backed loans for businesses, as well as an extension of business rates relief, both emergency measures taken as a result of the pandemic.

The government has also committed to paying 80% of the salary for workers unable to work during the pandemic, up to a maximum of £2,500/$3100 per month, if they are still on their employer’s payroll.

One further step taken by BoJo is to call in the team of spin doctors used by him in his general election victory a few months ago.

Spin doctors are only good for one thing– “controlling the message”—and propaganda put out by professional liars is the last thing the British public needs in these desperate times.

David Nabarro, Chair of Global Health and co-Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI) at Imperial College, London, said that now is not a “time for blame” but for “collective struggles”, but the Trump and BoJo strategy is the opposite, namely, using “populist” measures to divide and rule their respective electorates.

In any event, Dr Nabarro is wrong– “blame” and “collective struggle” are not mutually exclusive. I’m sure some Brits are not going to swallow everything dished out by BoJo’s spin doctors, and damn right they are!

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.