• Jean Rafferty


Updated: Apr 4


All images courtesy of Pixabay

Recently two friends, one Indian and one Iranian, have asked me in tones of disbelief, How on earth did the British create an empire? They were appalled by British inefficiency and division, and this was well before the collective hysteria and stupidity engendered by Covid 19.

Not having been around at the time of empire, I had no answer for them, but the unfolding of our reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has revealed some of the answers. No wonder Boris Johnson wanted to create herd immunity at the start of this when the herd has been such a powerful force for social enforcement.

In the course of a couple of weeks we have been persuaded to accept the house arrest of a particular section of the population, the closure of schools and businesses, and finally the loss of the whole population’s freedom of movement in the name of controlling a virus that the majority of us will get at some point and survive. The new Coronavirus Act came into being with little opposition, despite the fact that its powers go way beyond what even wartime governments have taken. People can be forced to take medication despite the fact that no vaccine against Covid-19 has yet been created; there have been relaxations of the assessment of adults and children who require care and of those protecting disabled people; people can be sectioned on the say so of one person; and there is indemnity for criminal negligence in relation to the pandemic.

This last provision is particularly helpful to the government, who have failed to provide proper protection for NHS workers despite their own advisers warning them three years ago that they should be stockpiling masks in case of pandemic – they decided that was too expensive.

They have also failed to implement the testing and contact tracing that helped South Korea contain the epidemic without going into total lockdown. There they initiated drive-through testing, speedily set up coronavirus wards in dorms and other facilities, and focused on obtaining proper equipment – masks, respirators, and negative pressure machines to remove air contaminated by the virus and prevent it from escaping. Our NHS workers in Scotland are belatedly being given out of date masks.

The key to keeping mortality low is very quickly differentiating between mild and severe forms of the virus,’ as Dr Min-Pok Kee, director of operations in Daegu, the South Korean epicentre of the epidemic, told Wired. ‘Those who are young or have no underlying disease should be separated from those who are older or have an underlying disease, and this latter group must be tested and given a chest x-ray as a matter of course.’

Singapore has also managed to keep the numbers of deaths down by contact tracing, despite the fact that people are jam packed into a very small area, with almost 8000 people per square kilometer. Dr Michael Ryan, emergencies chief of the World Health Organisation, said, ‘Singapore has not closed its schools or closed itself off; it never locked down. It focused very much on fact finding and contact tracing, on what it perceived would be very much accepted by the population.’

Despite its first couple of deaths, the country continues to allow people to meet but has put in place distancing measures so that there’s a metre between tables in restaurants and cinemas. Restaurant owners here might well think that would be a sensible alternative to losing their businesses altogether.

In Germany too, there has been widespread testing and the number of deaths there is low compared to those in other European countries – 200 out of 37000 confirmed cases of infection. Their death rate of 0.6% is one of the lowest in the world. Italy’s death rate is 10.1%.

Our response to Covid-19 in the UK has been typically arbitrary, first of all relying on herd immunity to develop if people are exposed to the virus and then abruptly flip-flopping to say, No, we must all self-isolate. Except we didn’t all have to self isolate at first, when the Prime Minister and Chancellor decided that London, the epicentre of the virus in this country, would not go into lockdown because they didn’t want to ‘alarm the markets.’

Instead, people over 70 were told they had to stay at home. We mustn’t alarm the toxic bankers and hedge fund managers who gamble daily with our future, but anyone over 70 was supposed to self isolate immediately. Ostensibly for their own good, though actually to ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus so that the under-equipped NHS would not be overwhelmed. Forcing isolation on one particular group smacks of the fascistic thinking behind the Nazis’ eugenics programme. Strange that it should come from a supposed libertarian like Boris Johnston.

But he had only just got started.

Previous pandemics such as SARS and HIV have been allowed to progress without extreme population control measures, so why are governments feeding hysteria about the new coronavirus? Annual deaths from seasonal flu can be as high as 650000 globally, yet no human rights were ever taken away because of it. It’s unlikely that the level of Covid 19 deaths will reach anything like that of HIV, which so far has killed 36 million people. Over 37 million still live with it, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa – a third of them without access to the retrovirals which have transformed getting the disease in the West. What are we doing about that?

As for air pollution, it kills around seven million people in the world every year, yet we do next to nothing about curbing the heavy industry and use of fossil fuel that create it. Could that be because those who suffer most are in lower income countries? and are the poorest of workers in those countries? One of the surprise benefits of Covid-19 has been a huge reduction in air pollution in China – Marshall Burke, a researcher at Stanford University, reckons that between 50000 and 75000 premature deaths from pollution will have been prevented by the Chinese lockdown.

In the UK we have to accept that some people have died and will die, though so far the majority have had underlying health conditions or have contracted sepsis, an aspect that has had little attention. It seems to me that the draconian rules are more about heading off the effects of years of austerity on the health service than about protecting the population. We aren’t stopping Covid-19, we’re simply containing it for the moment. People will continue to die when the restrictions are over.

In the meantime the atmosphere has yet again become toxic, the public response ranging from the self interested to the self righteous – people fighting over Pot Noodle on the one hand, and Derby police sending out drone pictures to ‘shame’ people taking exercise in the Peak District, as though it would be better for them all to be squashed into small parks in city centres.

The majority acceptance of the authoritarian measures brought in by their governments goes some way to explain how we were able to build such a cruel and unjust empire. As a nation we rush to accept the reasoning of those above us. We buy into their world view and enthusiastically enforce it. One of the most chilling things I’ve seen so far in this whole parade of foolishness is the reaction to the British woman swimming in her hotel pool in Tenerife. Admittedly she was selfish, but if the hotel wanted to prevent people swimming they should have covered the pool. British holidaymakers watching from their balconies clap the policeman who wades in to haul her out. They have accepted being confined to their rooms, which creates the hothouse conditions making the virus flourish on cruise ships, yet they all risk spreading the virus every night, when they go down to the restaurant to eat together. There’s no logic to that whatsoever.

But then there’s not much logic around where Covid 19 is concerned.

We prefer to rely on exhorting people to pull together, when people are panic buying as if there really was a war on, inexplicably stockpiling toilet roll and pasta. In a supermarket recently a man was reported as holding on to half a dozen family packs of toilet roll. An old lady asked him to let her buy just one, but he point blank refused. Pulling together? We couldn’t build an Ikea flatpack together, much less an empire.

I always thought the capitalist system would come crashing down when workers in the East unionised and challenged their bosses the way British workers did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now it seems all it will take is a few months of mass hysteria. By the end of this, thousands of people will have lost their jobs, many their businesses, and poorer families will have lost their homes. I shudder to think what human rights we’ll have lost in the process.

We’re fighting in supermarkets, queuing round the block to buy junk food like hotdogs in brine and canned meatballs in tomato sauce - and closing borders when over 70 million people are wandering round the world trying to find safety after the horrors of war. ‘If one is in Syria right now, the worry is not about Covid-19, but about bombs falling from the sky; kids being blown to pieces,’ says the WHO’s Dr Michael Ryan.

While we’re busy panic buying rubbishy food we may never eat over a virus we may never get, they’re trapped in overcrowded refugee camps where a mere cold can be a death sentence to a malnourished child, where disease and dirt and hunger are their daily conditions.

Shame on us.