Week in Review: The covid detonation

The covid detonation
The covid detonation
Ian Dunt By

It hits one thing after another. In nearly every area of our existing political debate, covid has the same deadening, ghastly effect: it makes things worse. It serves to take pre-existing problems and exacerbate them.

People often think that what is happening is new and unusual. But that is only the virus itself. The politics of the virus is all too well known.

Donald Trump has seized on it to attack his three main categories of enemy: Immigrants, international institutions and the press.

He has announced plans to suspend all immigration to the US - probably through a ban on the provision of new green cards and work visas and a continuation of emergency powers to expel undocumented immigrants on the southern border. He has lashed out against the World Health Organisation, in the same way that he does the WTO, the EU and the UN. He has regularly tried to bully and humiliate reporters in his daily press briefings. They are now, to all intents and purposes, just a stand-up routine by a raving lunatic.


But as absurd as many of his comments are, they have significant deleterious effects. His promotion of the drug hydroxychloroquine as some kind of miracle cure, for instance, meant that patients with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, who actually needed it, struggled to get it.

In the EU, we see a similar process along its own faultlines. There, the problem is different. It relates to its ongoing internal division over relative levels of government debt.

The economic impact of the disease will hit everyone. But countries are not all in the same position to deal with it. Some, like Holland and Germany, do not have a debt problem, and can therefore borrow on tolerable interest rates. Some, like Italy and Spain, do, and there is a danger that those interest rates will spiral upwards to account for the increased risk of lending to them.

The preemptive efforts of the EU to deal with that situation have shown many of the same qualities we saw during the debt crisis in the early 2010s - piecemeal efforts, slotted into complex mechanisms the public do not understand, without the basic elements of solidarity which are supposed to underpin the European project. It is prime fodder for populists in each country, with their own unique and contradictory narratives of EU failure and betrayal.

Meanwhile, the Brexit process, like some terrible family shame which has been locked away in a drawer, keeps crawling out. The UK and EU are currently embroiled, beyond any possible dimension of sanity, in discussions over the implementation of customs checks and controls in Northern Ireland for June 1st. Reading the reports, it's like finding soldiers on a Pacific island who still think the Second World War is going on. And yet it remains official policy, a completely deranged statement of priorities, which cannot be done, but simultaneously must be done, for political reasons which no-one can properly articulate.

Johnson has been far superior to Trump in his recognition of scientific expertise and refusal to attack immigration. But the relentless suspicion of international institutions is the same, as is the approach to journalism, even if it's done in a more subtle way.

No.10 spokespeople brand legitimate stories "ludicrous" and gleefully repeat daily that trust in media has collapsed. Health secretary Matt Hancock tells journalists that their manner of asking critical questions "irritates a lot of the public". Tory MPs routinely round on media figures, including, with a level of democratic illiteracy which is difficult to believe, by demanding they congratulate the prime minister on the birth of his baby.

And then there is the broader, long-running background horror show, that will play out over the months and years to come. The economy has been sluggish for a long time now, since the double-whammy of austerity and Brexit knocked it into standby mode. There is simply no spare capacity for a medium-term reduction in economic activity.

The same is true for local councils, who have been forced to slash their spending since the Tories took charge in 2010. There is nothing left to cut and yet demands for services will rise in the face of unemployment and underemployment.

For those of us lucky enough to still be healthy, this lockdown period is the calm before the storm. We are where everyone outside the financial sector was in 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed - so far unaffected, but aware of an awful wave heading our way.

It couldn't have happened at a worse time. The very worst people are in charge.

But we have at least that one advantage - a slim one, but a real one - that we can at least see it coming. And that means that those who know better can make the case now, before the debate starts properly, for a better response. One which recognises that covid does not disprove the need for international cooperation, solidarity, expertise, an active state, and independent journalism. It makes it.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out later this year.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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