Monday, 13 April 2020

Corona: the age of futility


I haven't climbed into the nuts and bolts of Corona in the way that other commentators have. I've seen what prats they can make of themselves when talking about trade and it's overstepping my bounds. The commentators making various confident assertions tend to be either contrarians or gatekeepers doing the bidding of their political masters. There are parallels with Brexit where, unsurprisingly, narratives emerge which are then adopted according to which trench of the culture war one fights in.

There are a lot of issues to separate out in this current debacle. Epidemiologists, virologists and other scientists have their place, but much of this debate is less to do with the science as it is a political decision over when and how to absorb the economic and health impacts of the virus based on the strategies available, where even the experts can only really provide supposition based on flawed and incomplete data.

Typically the remainer sect has it that if you are not a creditialised expert in one of the scientific disciplines then you're automatically prohibited from an opinion. We saw the same during Brexit with the likes of Simon Wren Lewis, an Oxford economist, insisting that expert opinion must take precedence over what was essentially a constitutional question about who really governs us. He was quite outraged that we plebs were allowed to choose for ourselves.

On the other side of the divide we have Tories who look to official channels such as the Telegraph and Spectator to be told what to think by the likes of Toby Young, never once letting reality intrude. On Twitter and Facebook there is absolutely no premium on knowledge or quality of output. All that really matters is tribal conformity.

There is, then, no public debate to speak of. There are only two belligerent sides, occasionally clashing but largely stroking each others egos. Nothing is ever concluded and it's largely an indulgent pastime since there is no possible way of influencing this government or achieving change by way of rational argument. This is a tyranny of ignorance, bolstered by spin, where the loudest and most malevolent voices get the hearing. I have never been more tempted to unplug from it all.

As regards to staying informed, Twitter is like sticking your head in a sewer and keeping it there, while the so-called mainstream media provides little of value. Much like the Brexit debate there is no real thirst for the facts. They pick up themes to run with be it chlorinated chicken or PPE and they rinse it to death to the exclusion of all other lines of enquiry largely because the media, and the opposition, is not especially interested in outcomes. It's all just game.

These days I can't face interacting with it. I have most of the media commentariat on mute while I focus on industry journals and associations, and wherever foreign news channels I find whose content I can verify. The British debate is wholly self-absorbed and insular, blinkered and binary with each side just as guilty of whatever they're accusing the other side of.

To a large extent we have somehow ended up with a dictatorship. Not in the classic sense, but with the opposition having opted out to fight its own civil war, and with media largely in the business of amusing itself there is next to no utility in participating. There is nothing particularly to stop the executive doing whatever the hell it pleases, to the point where it isn't even listening to its own supporters. This is unchecked power. We don't get a say until the next election (for what it's worth) whenever that may be, and we don't even have the euro-elections in between as a barometer.

At the best of times this is a wholly unsatisfactory position to be in, but right now it means a bungling government is not held to account for mistakes that will inevitably kill thousands of people. Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand are going all out on contact tracing to fight Corona. Boston is now doing likewise, hiring an army of 1000 practitioners. If the UK is seeking to ease the lockdown it needs to do the same to ensure it contains any new brushfires. There is, however, no indication the government will do any such thing. This government has no idea what it's doing.

Having been pressured into a lockdown, counter to its own plans, by way of public institutions and individuals taking their own precautions, it will cave similarly in easing the lockdown since the public have no real stamina for it. Since the lockdown was introduced by a series of bungled announcements, not having any real strategy, there is every reason to believe the same will happen as they attempt to ease it. 

If the public then assume it's all over and we're getting back to normal then we will see a second peak - so rather than a "flatten the curve" strategy we'll have an ongoing sine wave over a year or more - with each new lockdown more severe than the last. From the beginning this government has abandoned the basic principles of outbreak containment and as a result they have lost control.

You would think that with so much hanging in the balance there would be a degree of urgency in holding the government to account for its failures but instead much of the media is concerned only with the health of the prime minister or the PPE sideshow. We saw much the same during the Brexit debate with the media trivialising the issues and speculating on speculation, all the while the EU's official Notices To Stakeholders spelling out the precise consequences of no deal sat there unremarked while the clock was ticking.

This time around the timetable is all the more crucial. We can't eradicate Corona but we can at least tread water by putting out the brushfires as and when we find them. We can get to new outbreaks before they spiral out of control. We may not have seen this virus before but the fundamentals of outbreak control don't change. Yet for all that, given ample opportunity to interrogate the executive, our media concerns itself mainly with personalities and soft issues, unable to wake from its stupor.

If there is a glimmer of hope then it's a growing dissatisfaction with the media, but that could just be the emerging trend of Tories considering it impudent to question government at all. With the media digging its own grave it's easy to see how we could drift to state of authoritarianism where criticising government is viewed as unpatriotic (as it was in the World War Two). Ironic given that these are the same people who spent the last ten years bleating about freedom of speech and political correctness. Now that they are the establishment order, they're developing a political correctness of their own.

Peter Hitchens has warned of late that it will be the lockdown that erodes our civil liberties. I'm not wholly convinced by that case in that public tolerance for curtain twitchers is short and unlike any other time in history, we all have video cameras in our pockets. The plod have been quick to climb down and apologise for transgressions. My fear is that we are sliding from one politically correct tyranny to another - only there is no real need to censor the media in that their witless noise making poses no real problem. To be inconvenient to government it would have to do its job.

Rather than overthrowing the establishment, all we've really seen since Brexit is a change of management. We haven't drained the swamp. We've just introduced a new species of pondlife and the prospect of meaningful democracy is as remote now as it was when we were in the EU. I suppose people have to learn the consequences of not having democracy before they see the importance of it. Perhaps they will as they bury their dead. 

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