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MICHAEL WHITE: Coronavirus has exposed incompetence across the globe

The coronavirus crisis exposed the incompetence of world leaders including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, according to Michael White. Picture: Saul Leob/Getty Images - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

A leaderless world is proving to be ill-equipped for the crisis at hand, says MICHAEL WHITE.

A cartoon used by Philip Zec to mark VE Day in 1945. Picture: Philip Zec – Credit: Archant

The writer, Michael Morpurgo, wrote a poignant article at the weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Amid second-hand reminiscence (he was just 18 months old at the time) the author of War Horse wondered how lessons from the end of a vastly greater trauma than the Covid-19 pandemic might help us shape the better future we want to create now that a return to ‘normalcy’ looks like a receding option.

May 8, 1945, was a day of celebration, but one mixed with exhausted relief and much sadness for the 450,000 British dead – up to 80 million worldwide – wrote Morpurgo. As a result people better understood what really mattered and that the individual is diminished and vulnerable without the mutual succour provided by a thriving community. I suppose that’s what we acknowledge when we clap health and care staff on Thursdays at 8pm. The NHS itself is the most cherished legacy of post-war reconstruction.

Splendid stuff and we can all see how we might now decide to savour more deeply the simple things we’ve missed: freedom of movement to the hills and beaches, socialising with friends and family, sport and the theatre, church and pub, even the camaraderie of the workplace now denied to most of us since late March. Will we drive less and walk more? Fly fewer air miles and clock up more on a bike? Will we cut back on pointless Amazon purchases (a third are never used) and give up unhealthy takeaways now that we’ve learned to cook again?

I know, I know. Many such good intentions may be as short-lived as the promised ‘land fit for heroes’ proved to be after 1918. Britain’s backward gaze at war-time heroism has often been a source of misplaced exceptionalism and nostalgic complacency. But let’s not mention the B-word yet, not when most of us are doing quite well being more civil to each other than we were.

As we celebrate VE Day, Michael White says the coronavirus crisis has exposed the incompetence of our world leaders. Picture: Martin Rowson – Credit: Archant

Not all the time, of course. On Wednesday we saw the Daily Telegraph do over professor Neil Ferguson, Imperial College’s high profile, hyper-energetic epidemiologist, for taking visits from his activist lover in breach of ‘stay at home’ guidelines. A fair cop, guv’nor because ‘do as I say, not as I do’ is rarely a good look. So Ferguson quit, this just 24 hours after the Mail ‘exposed’ ex-chief scientific adviser, Sir David King’s rival Covid committee as a bunch of leftie scientists. Play nicer. Boys!


It all comes at a time when the government’s own scientists are starting to admit error, hard to deny as known UK Covid deaths outstrip Italy’s on a higher curve. Oh yes, and Priti (‘Take Back Control’) Patel’s officials confessed that 18 million visitors entered the UK without checks (just 273 required to self-isolate) in the eight weeks before the March 23 lockdown. I detect scapegoating in Whitehall and Fleet St as tired nerves fray. Who tipped off the Telegraph with this useful distraction from the death count?

As Downing St gingerly edges the country towards some limited version of a functioning economy – ‘next stage’ not ‘exit strategy,’ please – how ironical that most voters have proved more lockdown-compliant than the prof. Less eager than fearful of returning to workplace and classroom, less freedom-loving Merrie Englanders than You-Know-Who imagined, eh.


I didn’t hear anyone complaining about Boris’s Project Fear, but, if No.10 and the boffins belatedly overdid the frighteners, it was for a worthy cause. It remains to be seen whether the government’s boost in the polls – and revived levels of wholesome trust – survive the arrival of the hefty bill for furloughing 6.3 million people and bailing out their bosses. Polls rightly give Team Johnson poor ratings for pandemic preparation and speed of response. Voters may duly exact retribution when the danger is past as they did to the VE Day hero at the July 5 election. Solid Keir Starmer as an unflappable Clem Attlee, a calmer Yin to Boris’s restless Yang, it’s a thought. ‘National consensus’ is Sir Keir’s less-than-snappy slogan this week.


Either way we are changed by such a strange experience as the lockdown, one which we – and billions around the world – have all shared, like watching a global soap opera together. How often does that happen? It serves to underline how adaptable and resilient people can be in the face of change unless it overwhelms them, as disaster occasionally does to Minoans, Mayans and Mexican Aztecs.

So the biggest positive opportunity the Covid shake-up offers us is to see how we really could adapt our high-consumption lifestyle to something less voracious. It might keep two degree global warming at bay and save seven million lives a year from death by air pollution alone. You don’t need a satellite photo over Wuhan or Lombardy to see what a beneficial environmental impact a lockdown can have. But when we shift from touchy-feely generalisations to specifics we start to realise how hard such change might prove.

‘Degrowth’ advocates want global society not simply to end the race for perpetual economic growth – it’s only a means to an end, often self-defeating – but to reverse it. In Europe we may bask in our commitment to a post-fossil fuel economy by 2050 (does lockdown show it can be done?) while sneakily offshoring our industrial pollution to East Asia. Even in Lombardy – or Liverpool – closed factories and cleaner air equals lost jobs and income for many, on top of those already lost to globalisation and tech. So does oil at $1 a barrel, especially when it remains £1.25 a gallon at the pump.

So, while the pandemic experience unites us in shared grief and disruption, alongside hopes for a brighter future in return for the suffering, it also divides us – brutally so. Every week brings fresh evidence of this. As Britain gets a better grip on its Covid-19 related excess deaths – in the community and care homes, as well as hospitals – new data highlights the plight of the north east and north west, infection rates higher per capita than the crowded global hub that is London.

New York, Detroit, New Orleans, many of their neighbourhoods chaotic and poor, stand in stark contrast to well-ordered Seattle, Seoul and Berlin. The basic competence of governing regimes, and public trust which that generates, are a clear determinant everywhere. But so are age, sex, genetic ethnicity, occupational status and class, inter-generational cultural practices, including crowded places of worship and quack doctors peddling ‘Covid cures’ in bishops’ garb.

Lifestyle habits that help trigger those ominous ‘underlying conditions’ are not confined to smoking habits and – this week’s new focus – obesity. Expensive ski resorts from Aspen to Austria have also been super-spreaders. Cornish explorer, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who emerged safely from a Covid-19 ordeal this week, had just been ski-ing (at 83).

Rarely has Don Rumsfeld’s wrongly-mocked ‘known and unknown unknowns’ aphorism been more apposite. We’ve known for centuries that poverty always renders people more vulnerable to plague and that health workers without proper PPE are obviously going to be at risk. But did you know that more of the NHS’s BAME doctors keep working longer (my excellent GP is 74) after retirement age? Or that many of those who die of Covid-19 in their 30s and 40s are found to have untreated high blood pressure?

Me neither. But science around the world – a heartening sight – works frantically to establish exactly how coronavirus functions and why X emerges from it unscathed while Y dies. Genes must be a factor. Thus mutant cystic fibrosis genes are commoner in northern Europeans (we have it in the family) because the disorder helped carriers to survive cholera epidemics. But activists cherry pick the evidence to ‘prove’ cultural racist bias or to demand that Boris unleash healthy over-70s along with the youngsters this week. Didn’t you know that First Dad Stanley J – who shares the PM’s entitlement gene – is eager to celebrate his 80th properly in August? Be patient, Stan. We first need to understand Covid to know how to contain it. NHS masks and Perspex screens, staggered commuting and those Bluetooth track-and-trace Apps being piloted on the Isle of Wight? You’re not immortal, Stan. Ask your boy what it’s like.


But politicians, ‘following the science’ and the opinion polls, have to balance public health prudence against mounting economic damage and terrifying levels of consequent debt – public and private. Hence all the trial balloons they have been floating ahead of Johnson’s promised ‘next stage’ statement. That Covid-19 has borne down unequally on different sections of society – its impact also divided by age, ethnicity, region and (less fashionably) sex – is now a truism which grievance pedlars eagerly exploit. The last thing the country needs is to be hit by another wave of Nigel Farage when we’re still getting over the last wave.

So disharmony presents danger – medical, economic, political – at the local level, though gun-toting ‘libertarian’ protests (‘Give me Liberty and give me Death’) we saw outside the state legislature in Minnesota, are relatively few so far. Mr Farage seems to be on furlough. Far more serious in their long-term effect are the festering suspicions we can clearly see at global, regional – in our case, Europe and the North Atlantic – as well as national domestic level. The new nationalism could squash most hopes of collective betterment.

The flashing red light on the dial that monitors Sino-American relations is alarming. Think for a moment if those shots fired across Korea’s demilitarised zone (DMZ) had been a deliberate provocation from the north to distract attention from Kim Jong-un’s mysterious disappearance. How much do we trust a pair of insecure and autocratic bullies like presidents Xi and Trump to get on their hotline to calm things down? Do they even have one? The comparison that leaps to mind is the chaotic fallout from the assassination at Sarajevo in 1914, not the managed brinkmanship that peacefully turned round that shipment of Soviet missiles heading to Cuba in 1962.

Washington’s erratic trade war with Beijing was bad enough. But China’s manipulative cynicism in deflecting legitimate questions about the origins and handing of the emerging Wuhan epidemic in December begs for a firm but adroit American leadership response. Was it November anyway? French doctors have now reverse-engineered some ‘flu’ symptoms: Covid-19 may have been in Paris by Christmas. Unpicking the science and preventing its contamination by bad politics requires what we used to call diplomacy when Henry Kissinger – no pushover – was in his manipulative prime. Instead we have had inconsistent, often incoherent bluster from the White House. In the Irish Times the other day, Fintan O’Toole wrote that the US has provoked many emotions in his lifetime, but never pity – until now.

Donald Trump’s falling domestic approval ratings in response to his woeful Covid crisis management ramp up the risk that a cornered rat may bite. It would be a great relief if Joe Biden’s #MeToo problems proved enough to sink his own inadequate candidacy. That could clear the way for a Democratic state governor or senator 20 years younger than 77 – 30 years even – who can decisively defeat Trump and rescue the federal government machine from the ineptitude, cronyism and neglect he is deliberately inflicting on it every day.


Where are the Americans hearing the call of destiny? Why have party apparatchiks put up with such mediocrity? For the same reason that serious Labour politicians put up with four wasted years of Corbynism: cowardice in the face of irresponsible populism among their activists, the driving force behind Boris Johnson’s ascent. Young Wilfred Johnson is a blameless new-born, but to see God-and-family newspapers simpering over his birth with barely a mention of its highly-irregular circumstances also tells us a lot we’d rather not know about our shabby times. Page one mother-and-baby photos sweep the debris under the rug. Very Boris. His reproduction factor is at least R.6. Neil Ferguson’s foibles are less indulged.


Back to the big picture where in place of diplomacy we get propaganda and power plays. China is rapidly expanding its first deep sea navy for 500 years and cash-for-complicity loans across East and South Asia towards its old trading routes to Africa and the Middle East. State agencies, sober ambassadors even, hit the airwaves and social media to peddle evasions and lies about the source and spread of Covid-19. An FT analysis accuses Beijing officials of doctoring footage for Chinese TV news, purporting to show Italians on their balconies cheering Chinese PPE and medical help.

With its fragile banking system, debt levels and past communist sympathies Italy is said to be China’s target EU state: a Travels of Marco Polo in reverse. At the start of the lockdown an Italian friend assured me that Chinese tourists in Venice had brought Covid-19 to Lombardy just as Chinese sanctions-busters (he said) brought it to Tehran. On Tuesday a BBC report suggested that a Revolutionary Guard airline – there’s crony capitalism for you – had systematically breached quarantine restrictions with multiple flights to China that brought the virus back. Initially, right-wing US pundits said Italy and Tehran were paying the price of dodgy dealings with China – a less vocal claim now that the US tops the Covid casualty list.

Talking of the EU, did you spot that Team Trump claims – made despite specific advice from their own agencies – that intelligence data points to Covid-19 emerging (by accident or design) from Wuhan’s viral lab, not its wet markets, is supported by an unpublished British-Norwegian paper? Its co-author is retired oncologist, Professor Angus Dalgleish, a distinguished researcher but also a former UKIP candidate (Sutton and Cheam, 2015) and ‘Leave means Leave’ champion of Brexit.


There is an unsettling connectivity to some of this thinking. But presidents lashing out on Twitter are more dangerous than professors. This week Trump attacked George Bush for calling for national unity. His own contribution was to attack state governors for not taking his advice or – in unlocked Georgia – taking it too literally. Divisiveness is Trump’s forte, ‘you’re fired’ as he used to say hosting reality TV’s The Apprentice. All the while he plays pass-the-blame-parcel with Xi who is likely to prove a better player, not easily fired.

The EU remains committed to unity and consensus. But there is a familiar divergence between theory and practice. The time is long past when we talked hopefully of the ‘hour of Europe’. The eurozone’s survival, not its global projection of soft power, is currently the focus of its ambition. The UK-EU’s Zoom trade talks seem to be making snail’s pace progress with neither side yet blinking as the June 30 deadline looms. As speculators use the uncertainty to short the pound Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, has just started talks with the US. Does she know she’s entering a cage with a gorilla?


Internally the EU’s North-South divide is taking new contours. The Teuton bloc remains reluctant to underwrite coronavirus debts of the struggling Latin south via some form of banking union. On Tuesday, Germany’s constitutional court threatened to kybosh the ECB’s bond purchasing lifeline, a bad judicial call. It has now emerged that the rich north is getting more than its share of EU state aid waivers to prop up endangered industries, Germany double its share. And Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary is not alone in noticing that inefficient airlines in France, Germany and Italy are getting the nod from the Commission for what look like rule-breaking state handouts that will allow them to emerge from lockdown in better shape than more efficient British rivals who are shedding staff (and Gatwick), Where’s Boris protecting our interests, you might ask?

Pro-Brexit Times columnist, Iain Martin, ingeniously suggests that December 31 remains a suitable moment to sever our EU chains because the pandemic hit to Europe’s economies will greatly exceed the damage expected to arise from a hard Brexit. Lorry queues at Dover? Chaos at airports? You must be joking, they’re currently empty. The perfect time to make the adjustment. I’d be more reassured by such market optimism if I hadn’t watched dizzy New York and London stock exchanges bounce back as if a V-shaped recovery is a done deal.

With similar insouciance no less a figure than Steve Baker MP, the former Brexit minister and Leave establishment grandee, popped up this week to demand an end to the ‘absurd, dystopian and tyrannical’ lockdown, a probably illegal action by the ‘surveillance state’, said our Steve. Not long to wait before we know whether World King Boris still shares his lieutenant’s gung-ho attitudes now that he’s had coronavirus and baby Wilfred.

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