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Johnson and Trump are ineffectual in dealing with coronavirus

Masked people walk in front of a TV screen showing a live broadcast of U.S. President Donald Trump's speech at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon) - Credit: AP

NICK COHEN on how the coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our society and its norms – as well as the shortcomings of its politicians.

You gauge a crisis by the classics people reach for to help them through it. After the Trump victory, they read Orwell’s 1984 and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Now coronavirus is sweeping the world, they are reaching for The Plague, by Albert Camus.

Their choices can appear a touch hysterical. Whatever else today’s populist regimes are they are not totalitarian – Donald Trump is more spoilt toddler than Big Brother – while Camus’ plague, which sweeps the French Algerian city of Oran, was an allegory of Nazism not a comment on the state of public health.

It echoes with today’s readers because great literature is great because it can never be confined to one interpretation. The Plague’s timelessness lies in the courage, cowardice and despair of characters caught in a catastrophe.

One character could be with us today. Father Paneloux greets news that pestilence is sweeping Camus’s city with a smile as he sees how death can become a marketing opportunity for militant religion.

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‘My brethren,’ he cries. ‘A calamity has befallen you… God, who has so long bent the face of pity towards this town, is tired of waiting; disappointed in His eternal hope, He has turned away His face. No earthly power – not even, note this well, vain human science – can shield you from this hand as it reaches out to you. Beaten on the bloody threshing floor of pain, you will be cast out with the chaff.’

Science could not save you. Medicine could not revive you. You cannot trust the experts, the scientists in their ivory towers and elite doctors with the fancy degrees and know-it-all airs. Put your trust in Christ, and more importantly in Father Paneloux, and repent.

Today’s charlatans see our plague as a marketing opportunity for militant politics. I do not believe they will succeed, or not entirely.

If this virus is as destructive as officials fear, the failures of the populist right will be as exposed as its prejudices.

Before explaining that conclusion, it is worth understanding why Donald Trump cried that his administration was ‘doing a GREAT job of handling coronavirus, including the very early closing of our borders to certain areas of the world. It was opposed by the Dems, ‘too soon’, but turned out to be the correct decision’.

In France, Marine Le Pen extemporised on Trump’s theme and said the spread of the coronavirus was a reason to close France’s frontier with Italy, effectively a call to end open borders in the European Union.

Matteo Salvini used the virus when he condemned the Italian government for rescuing migrants in flimsy boats from the Mediterranean, while the right-wing Greek government found it a convenient use for keeping men and women fleeing Assad and Putin in closed camps on Lesbos.

Disgust and fear can drive politics, and change societies and the people who live in them. What can be more disgusting than a choking death? What is more frightening that a killer whose existence no one dreamed of at Christmas?

Both foster a suspicion of the stranger, to return to Camus; of unclean outsiders, who do not share our purification rituals. As the disease takes hold and communal life shuts down, society becomes atomised and each of us becomes suspicious of everyone else.

Imagine where we could be in a few weeks. The streets have emptied (they are half-empty in my part of London now).

Football matches, concerts, marathons, plays – the entertainments that mark the calendar of everyday life – are cancelled or take place behind locked doors.

The supermarket shelves empty too (and once again it is already difficult to find handwash and toilet roll in many shops).

Who then thinks of those who cannot afford to stockpile as they stagger between one payday or benefits cheque and the next?

If you are infected, the advice is to lock yourself away, not only from the outside world, but from your family. You must sleep in a separate bedroom and wash in a separate bathroom, as if most people rattle around in mansions with bedrooms and bathrooms to spare or can afford to check into a hotel until their partner receives an all-clear.

At the time of writing, an incomplete list of previously unthinkable measures the state is having to contemplate includes: the police coping with the collapse in available officers by only investigating murders, the deployment of troops to the streets, the release of minor offenders because the prison service can no longer manage them, tax holidays for firms facing cash-flow crises, the postponement of exams for schoolchildren, the closure of their schools, the deferring of operations sick patients have waited for in pain for months, the closing of parliament and appeals for volunteers to shore up ravaged essential services.

Don’t think it can’t happen here. Italy is already in lockdown. The Chinese communist party placed nearly 60 million people under effective house arrest in Hubei province.

Fear of the sickness will be as important as the sickness itself. And that fear will be stoked by the novelty of the sickness.

I have no wish to imitate those bluff dismissive commentators who cry ‘keep calm and carry on’ and expect to hear a round of applause for their no-nonsense common sense.

We are moving into a new and more frightening world and no one can say where it will take us. Yet it remains true that the coronavirus will be accorded publicity accustomed killers never enjoy.

Its novelty invests it with a dark glamour. The diminishing number who believe we have nothing to worry about can say, with justice, that on average seasonal flu kills 17,000 each winter and the media barely notices.

The tens of thousands killed by the coronavirus will be an event. The death toll will be updated daily. Their grieving families will be interviewed. The virus will consume the nation’s attention. Indeed it already has.

The panic. The loss of reason, which is already seeing shoppers stockpiling enough food to keep them through a nuclear winter. The theft of communal medical supplies. The threat that GPs and hospitals will be overwhelmed, not only by genuinely sick patients, but the paranoid well. These events foretell a near future in which open-mindedness and altruism are replaced by suspicion and self-interest. Surely this is the polluted climate Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were born to thrive in.

I do not believe they will – or rather I hope they won’t – for a reason I alluded to at the start of this piece. Camus, Orwell and Arendt’s dissections of the 20th century totalitarianism cannot be reliable guides to the strongmen of the 21st.

Today’s populist bosses do not follow the Nazi dictum ‘if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it’. The lies of Johnson and Trump are not meant to be believed. They are an in-joke between the leader and his followers, which neither side takes too seriously.

It’s no accident that Trump came into politics from reality TV and Johnson from the comedy corner of the Telegraph opinion pages and Have I Got News for You. They are post-modern figures who want their supporters to enjoy the performance rather than be governed effectively. Lying is just a part of the show.

They give the fans the transgressive pleasure of seeing the authority figures – the liberals, the experts, the BBC, the New York Times, the judges, the economists and the civil servants – trashed for the hell of it. They create enemies, and taunt and humiliate them. The price for the audience is accepting that the stream of lies and broken promises from the stars on stage don’t matter.

I thought we would have to wait to see if the audience would keep applauding when a hard or no-deal Brexit comes next year. But the virus has brought that moment closer.

To put it bluntly, the time for leaders in clown costumes has passed. That joke isn’t funny any more. Johnson and Trump look like comedians dying on stage now; living fossils from a world that was wiped out by a natural disaster.

The position of the US, where tens of millions do not have medical cover was already bad enough. But the Trump administration has made it worse by failing to provide virus testing kits laboratories can work with.

Johnson senses his own irrelevance, and has been hiding behind expert medical advisers since the crisis began.

Camus thought hard about fear and its consequences. He wrote, conventionally enough, that a ‘climate of fear is not one that encourages reflection’.

But he did not then go into a conventional appeal for calm and rationality, but instead said we should recognise that fear moves us all. We should not and, more precisely, we could not dismiss it. Instead, we ‘should try to find a remedy for it’.

Remedies for global pandemics include disease proofing your country as far as is possible. You do it by ensuring your health service is well funded and staffed, and that you have adequate measures to ensure the social care of the elderly.

When looking at the workforce, you would want generous sick pay mandated by law. You would be alert to the dangers of overbearing employers having the power to force insecure workers to come in however much of a danger they pose to their colleagues and the public. In short, we respond to the threats of our time by rebuilding the welfare state.

More details of what a new settlement should look like will come as this crisis uncovers previously ignored faults in our society.

But one point is already clear: disease-resistant countries cannot afford to have men like Johnson and Trump anywhere near power if they wish to stay healthy.

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