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Is our response to coronavirus fair?

An aerial view of coffins at a mass burial in Parque Taruma cemetery, Manaus, Brazil. Graves are being dug at a new area of the cemetery for Covid deaths. - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

In this second extract from his new book on fairness, BEN FENTON asks how it affects the way we see politics, and how societies have dealt with coronavirus.

When did you last vote? At an election? For an MP? A mayor? A president? Perhaps in a referendum? Or did you fill in an online survey about government policy? Or respond to a council email seeking views on reducing the speed limits? Or did you click on a Facebook poll? Or ‘like’ a tweet by a politician?

In 2021, we have more opportunities to influence external factors on our lives than at any time since our 1000x great-grandparents lived in broadly egalitarian bands on the savannahs.

Does that give us more… more what? Freedom? Opportunity? Wealth? Security? Happiness? What does it mean to live in a democracy? Are democracies inherently fair? Lot of questions. Not much space. Let’s start by trying to define fairness.

In my book, I offer five definitions of fairness (and could offer many more). Simply put, they are these: a fair society creates:

  • A condition in which individuals or groups trust each other enough to agree trade-offs in their welfare so that they do not benefit equally from society, but can accept the inequalities as long as they do not exceed certain boundaries.
  • A condition that provide restraints on the powerful to prevent the weakening of others who have less power. Of particular importance in politics is that, if you win a majority in a legislature, you don’t govern just for those who voted for you, but for all those who took part in the process.
  • A condition in which all those cooperating within a society have an equal or appropriate chance at success in their endeavours under rules enforced by an independent justice system.
  • A condition that allows and encourages those cooperating within a society to show tolerance of others’ conduct so that the interests of a plural society are reflected as far as possible in common goals.
  • A condition that allows and encourages co-operators to suspend the pursuit of absolute ideas of ‘right and wrong’ in favour of achieving consensus on what constitutes the highest common factors of happiness for a plural society.

There are plenty of other things that democracy has to do: defend, educate, police, maintain, house, and cure its members for a start. But if it is set up to move towards the aims in those five definitions of fairness, then it will at least tend towards fairness and indeed to fairness to all. Each member of each democracy has to make up their own mind as to whether it is or is not ‘fair enough’ and then apply their X in the ballot paper, or write a placard, or stand for election themselves. Moaning about fairness on social media platforms, especially from behind the cowardice of anonymity, is neither fair nor sufficiently cooperative to justify being counted as a member of a cooperative group.

In states where governments do not have to care about popular opinion, political debate is stifled and nobody really knows what others think. Where governments bend to the popular will, political debate is lively to the point of hysteria. In between those points, there are usually stable democracies in which gentle swings on the democratic pendulum push political action between narrow lines of policy change. At least, that was the pattern for much of the last 30-odd years since the end of the Cold War.

Perhaps politics became too easy. It certainly seems to many people that the practice of democracy became too much like show business. And that the players on stage believe they are protected by a ‘fourth wall’ so their audience has no power of restraint on them.

This is why we now have ‘populists’ in power in many countries. Populists manipulate to the tools of power and govern for their base. Fair politicians govern for all.

Unfair politicians want us to believe in a myth that their ideas are the only ones that count and that anything they do in pursuit of the ‘will of the people’ is justifiable. Eventually, their failings need not be explained or excused or even admitted, just be counted as part of the myth.

As Yuval Noah Harari argues in his magisterial book Sapiens, we invent myths so we can comprehend the functioning of things that do not have a real, physical existence, such as societies. Fairness may be a myth, but no more than those conjured up by strongmen leaders seeking to regress our politics. And fairness has the advantage that nobody gets imprisoned or ‘disappeared’ in the quest for greater fairness.

The myths of populist power are nowhere more obvious than in their dismal failure to confront the coronavirus – a disease less susceptible to bluster and self-belief than to competence and organisation. Yet even the ineptitude of Donald Trump during the pandemic did not cause his defeat last November – it was the effect the virus had on the US economy.

When the coronavirus became an obvious threat to the ordinary functioning of societies across the world, some political leaders who had come to power on the promise of liberating the downtrodden suddenly found themselves having to reduce the liberty of those people in unprecedented ways.

Some, of course, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, refused impose lockdowns. While we still do not know how many people will die in Brazil from Covid-19, it was and will be many thousands more than needed to. As of last week, the death toll was 330,000, slightly fewer than the US with a population only about two-thirds as large. Its daily death toll was the largest since the pandemic began, reaching 4,000.

States with populist regimes such as Donald Trump’s US, Boris Johnson’s Britain, or Bolsonaro’s Brazil all vied for the unhappy crown. Those with more traditional and cautious administrations such as Moon Jae-in’s South Korea were near the foot of the table. The home of fairness, New Zealand, contained the virus so successfully that there were only 26 recorded deaths from the disease by the beginning of April 2021.

The media in the US and UK – even some of those that normally showed doglike devotion to them on other issues – rounded on the incompetence of Johnson and Trump in their response to the disaster. Leaders who took power on the back of inflammatory rhetoric found that words, however toxic they might be, do not kill germs.

Globalisation is not everybody’s cup of tea. The ease of international travel certainly assisted coronavirus on its world tour. But a world that operated in concert did better at producing early vaccines and treatments for the disease than was predicted at the beginning of the pandemic.

Writing as Covid-19 began to take a heavy toll on lives in dozens of countries, Philip Stephens of the Financial Times said: “The state is back. Long live globalisation. Coronavirus is remaking democratic politics. The paths out of the crisis will present liberal democracies with a choice between authoritarian nationalism and an open global order founded on cooperation between states… The financial crash of 2008 proved a lost opportunity for change. The result was rising public discontent and the spread of angry populisms of right and left. Coronavirus leaves no room for a second hesitation. Voters across most advanced democracies are paying a price in weak healthcare systems for ideological devotion to small-state, low-tax economics.”

The disease offered us a chance to reassess how we relate to each other in any number of ways, a chance to restore the fairness lost in the aftermath of 2008. By entering into lockdown and volunteering to risk the effects of massive economic damage, we essentially said we were prepared to sacrifice enormously in order to protect those most vulnerable.

That the world made this choice suggests that our sense of fairness trumps (ahem) our yearning for financial gain. Perhaps future historians will see it as a sign of softness and decadence. How long we remember this remains to be seen; the taste of the most delicious meal can be hard to remember when the size of the restaurant bill adds to one’s overdraft.

Yet there is a much more significant reminder inherent in the coronavirus. We are a very dim species, for all our cleverness. Every so often, we think we have transcended the physical, chemical and biological reality of where and what we are. Nonetheless, by harnessing cooperation and competition, the twin cogs of our lives oiled by the lubricant of fairness, we have achieved things that our ancestors were incapable of imagining.

Without a specific purpose for our cleverness, we produce inventions like social media and we have begun to think that only we count. In the past, religion was a reminder that there was something bigger than us: it is nature that makes dwarfs of us, although, humans being humans, we created myths of nature and called them gods.

In our latest era, because we now believe we understand nature through the laws (that we still often have to amend) of physics, chemistry and biology, we don’t think nature applies to us.

Before the agricultural revolution of 12,500 years ago began our gradual transformation into sedentary farmers and eventually city-dwellers, we were all hunter-gatherers. As such, we existed as small units against other units until we learned to cooperate with the others; in our first city-states in Sumeria and Ancient Egypt, we existed as units against other units, until we began to cooperate with (or conquer) the others; as nation-states, the same.

We have even found ways to co-operate on continental and global levels, though fairness has proved elusive because the bigger and more plural things get the harder it is to find ways of fair co-operation. Each time, we have found ways to make living with, working with and understanding ‘others’ possible through treating them fairly and being treated fairly.

Of course, there are times when that no longer works. Then we have a war and after that we find a way to be peaceful, most recently for almost eight decades, on a global scale. Today, encouraged by social media, the most efficient means for the spreading of bad ideas yet invented, we are starting to look with greater interest at the flaws of others than at the common interests we share.

The coronavirus is an opportunity to change that.

Until just now, we had forgotten that there is always a bigger threat than just ‘others’. It is the same threat that ‘others’ also face: it is all the other species on our planet. While humans have killed or tamed almost all the physical threats – sabre-toothed tigers and bears and crocodiles are not a menace to us at a species level – and used chemistry to tame many of the biological threats, the pandemic shows we have yet to tame all of them.

Coronavirus is a reminder that there is something bigger than us, even if it is much smaller. It is also a reminder that the reason we have developed an aversion to unfairness and a reward system for acting fairly is that these instincts are our best allies in the only fight for survival that counts, which is the need to compete as we cooperate with the rest of existence. And just as the need to remember and recognise our true enemies has not gone away, we need to remember and recognise our allies as well.

Or, as Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special rapporteur on the coronavirus, says: “I hope we remember from this that we can succeed in difficult moments only if we work together, if we collaborate not if we compete.”

To be Fair: The Ultimate Guide to Fairness in the 21st Century is published by Mensch and available to buy online and now in bookshops.

Ben Fenton was the senior reporter of the Daily Telegraph and the chief media correspondent of the Financial Times

This extract has been edited and updated to include the most recent data on the coronavirus pandemic

Brazil’s pandemic

The South American country has suffered more acutely than most with a surge in cases that experts believe has yet to peak.

In recent weeks, it has accounted for around one in four of reported Covid deaths worldwide. Several states have reported short supplies of oxygen and sedatives.

Meanwhile, the rapid spread of a variant first discovered there has caused global concern.

The response of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been widely criticised. He has opposed lockdown measures and consistently played down the severity of the virus.

He has called Covid “just a little flu” and cast doubts on the efficacy and safety of jabs. He has shifted his tone on immunisations recently, but critics say it has come too late.

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