Week in Review: Infantilising the covid debate

One of the most frustrating things about covid is how often it forces you to return to first principles.

This is a virus. It spreads by close contact between people, especially inside. People are afraid of getting this virus, so many of them will stay at home regardless of whether there are government restrictions in place.

This isn't complicated. It is very basic indeed. And yet it still seems beyond the comprehension of many of the people who regularly debate the issue.

On Newsnight yesterday evening, former Pizza Express chair Luke Johnson was railing against the new restrictions coming into force after lockdown. "Pubs didn't even shut during the Blitz in the second world war," he insisted. Meanwhile, debate raged in the newspapers this morning on whether to hug your grandmother at Christmas.

Apparently, this needs saying. It is remarkable that it should be necessary, but evidently it is. The difference between the Blitz and a pandemic is that the Blitz was not spread by contact with other people. Whether you were in a pub or your home during the Blitz made little difference. Whether you are in a pub or your home during covid can potentially make a very great difference.

It is not a good idea to hug your grandmother at Christmas. The virus spreads by close contact. The elderly are more at risk from it. So the trouble with hugging your grandmother is that, if you have covid, you may kill her.

In the background of these infantile arguments is the perennial covid myth: that there is a binary opposition between health and the economy.

Throughout the pandemic, leading figures in politics and journalism have insisted on maintaining the idea that there is a zero-sum relationship between these two priorities - that what you take from one you give to the other. "The Labour party have been calling for stronger, harder, deeper lockdowns since the beginning of this thing," Claire Fox, an ally of Nigel Farage, said on Question Time last night. "They want to close the economy down and then seem to be shocked that there's an economic crisis."

This is false. A recent analysis of data for 45 countries by Michael Smithson compared covid deaths per million of population with economic indicators. It found no evidence of a positive relationship between covid deaths and either imports or exports. There was a negative correlation between covid deaths and GDP and between covid deaths and private consumption expenditure. In other words: those countries which succeeded, even temporarily, in suppressing the virus were typically better off economically than those which did not.

It is not just lockdown which is responsible for our economic problems. It is the virus itself. Containing it saves both lives and the economy.

Elements of the pandemic are powerfully counter-intuitive. We associate the sight of loved ones with all the things that are best in our lives. We think of an embrace as the most natural thing on earth. It's hard to keep reminding yourself that it is by being close to those you love that you can put them at risk.

But many of the people agitating against restrictions are not struggling with this natural intuitive disconnect. They are simply refusing to engage with reality - with the world of empirical data, trade-offs and least-bad options. Sometimes it is because they simply cannot bring their mind into contact with it. Sometimes it is because the mental models they use to think - typically of warfare, and bravado, and national virility - are completely unhelpful when it comes to a pandemic. And sometimes, it is because they see an opening - a group of potential anti-lockdown voters - and cynically attempt to exploit them. This, of course, is Farage's reasoning as he establishes his new political party.

But regardless of the cause, this is a dangerous moment to fly off into the never-never land of easy emotional answers. The news on a vaccine is encouraging. It may well be available very soon. And one of the chief issues which political debate must now deal with is how to counter the growing anti-vaccination movement online.

There is a significant moral and intellectual difference between the kind of simple-minded positions outlined here and anti-vaccine propaganda. But this radicalised form of anti-science thinking is given rich soil to grow by a mainstream debate which refuses to engage on the basis of evidence and instead fights its battles on the grounds of emotion and false binaries.

If it continues to flourish, if anti-vaccine sentiment truly takes hold, this virus will be with us much longer than it has to be. The damage it inflicts on us - on our health, our lives and the economy - will persist longer than they need do. The first step towards countering it is to be vigilant about the empirical basis of the mainstream debate.

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

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.

 

Spending review: Brexit will damage the parts of the economy which survived covid

It was an extraordinary thing to behold. We've just 37 days until Britain leaves the single market and the customs union - the biggest single change in the country's trading status we've seen in 40 years. And yet the chancellor did not once mention Brexit during his spending review statement to the House of Commons. It was as if it wasn't happening.

Perhaps he was distracted. The figures released today about the impact of the coronavirus on the British economy were startling, even if we knew they were coming. The economy will contract by 11.3% this year, the largest fall for over 300 years. Economic output is not expected to return to pre-crisis levels until the fourth quarter of 2022. The UK will borrow a total of £394 billion this year, equivalent to 19% of GDP. Underlying debt is forecast to continue rising every year, reaching 97.5% of GDP in 2025-26.

For a while, Brexiters in government believed that the extraordinary level of hurt the coronavirus inflicted on the economy could have a useful side-effect for Brexit. It meant that the damage inflicted by Britain's departure from the EU - either with or without a deal - could be hidden away, overshadowed by the carnage of the pandemic. This seemed to fit with Rishi Sunak's silence today about the end of the transition period.

It is a cynical and irresponsible argument. But it is also false. If you put his speech to one side and instead looked at the Office for Budget Responsibilities (OBR) economic and fiscal outlook, you can see why.

The OBR forecast is not perfect. It seems to treat friction at the border early next year predominantly as a consequence of no-deal Brexit and imagines that a deal would lead to a "smooth transition". This is not quite right. The government has chosen to leave the customs union and single market, meaning that exporters will face checks for safety and security documentation, customs papers and, in some cases, regulatory compliance. This will apply whether there is a deal or not, as ministers have recently begun to state publicly.

But nevertheless, the report demonstrates that Brexit is not concealed by covid. It is significantly worsened by it.

This is because Brexit affects different parts of the economy to those hit by the virus. During the last year, face-to-face services like hospitality, entertainment and transport were the worst affected. Sectors like manufacturing and financial services were able to defend themselves fairly well by having people work from home or practice social distancing in the workplace. But it is this latter set which is most affected by Brexit, as they lose frictionless access to the EU market. The impact of no-deal Brexit is "largely additive to that suffered from coronavirus", the report says. We have imposed one crisis onto another.

The report found that the chaos of covid got in the way of government and businesses preparing for the end of transition. This, of course, was precisely why the government was told to extend transition earlier in the year - something it failed to do. Now we see the consequence. Business and government have been "distracted by the need to deal with the disruption caused by the virus", the OBR found. Personnel and resources which would have gone towards Brexit were diverted to the pandemic. Cash reserves and inventories were run down, making firms more vulnerable to shocks.

The OBR forecast that a no-deal Brexit would reduce real GDP by a further two per cent next year. What's interesting about the forecast is the difference between the short-term and long-term effect. The report concludes that the impact of checks at the border will dissipate over the course of the year as businesses get used to the new system. They'll start learning exactly what they need to do to avoid delays, or maybe even find other routes to market that avoid Dover-Calais. But the long-term hit to productivity - an area the British economy already struggles with - builds slowly, leaving output around 1.5% lower than in its standard forecast after five years, then continuing to grow from there. It's not just a short-term impact. Brexit leaves permanent scars.

The report predicts costs to the economy from "heightened uncertainty" and "tighter credit conditions", lower business investment "reflecting the prospective loss of some export markets" and a rise in structural unemployment "as more resources need to be reallocated from declining to expanding sectors" as a result of Brexit.

Under no-deal, unemployment would rise above eight per cent next year. It would delay the point at which Britain returns to its pre-virus output peak, no matter how the economic effects of the pandemic continue to play out. In the worst case scenario it stretches to the second quarter of 2025, a full three years later than under a deal.

It's a grim prospectus, which goes some way to explaining why Sunak didn't want to talk about it this afternoon.

There is, in the end, some truth in the cynical view that covid could smother the impact of Brexit: the virus does indeed have a bigger effect on the economy. It is monstrous in what it is doing to us.

But then, no-one picked covid. No-one was responsible for it. Brexit, on the other hand, is a choice, as is the decision to leave the customs union and single market, or the refusal to extend the transition. The impact will not be covered-up by the pandemic. We will simply be taking those parts of the economy which managed to avoid the damage of the virus and inflicting a completely different kind of economic pain on them, for no discernible reason at all.

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

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.

 

Week in review: An American coup

Finally, one of the big beasts said it. We'd been waiting for a moment of decency, for some evidence of the most basic possible level of democratic responsibility from Republican politicians. And mercifully yesterday we got one.

"Having failed to make even a plausible case of widespread fraud or conspiracy before any court of law, the president has now resorted to overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election," Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, wrote on Twitter. "It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president."

He's not entirely alone. Tucker Carlson, one of Donald Trump's supporters on Fox News, has criticised his election fraud claims. Karl Rove, the Republican strategist, published a piece in the Wall Street Journal headlined: "This election result won't be overturned." Chris Krebs, the former election security chief, said Trump's claims were "dangerous" and "crazy".

But they are the exception, not the norm. What we mostly see from the Republican party is silence - silence in the face of what is, make no bones about it, a coup attempt in the world's most powerful nation.

In a press conference yesterday - during which, like a sign from God in a cheap straight-to-video thriller, his hair dye started leaking down his face - former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani repeated the nonsense claims of fraud in the election. Sydney Powell, Trump's campaign lawyer, claimed a "massive influence of Communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China" had influenced the election and linked debunked conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems, a US technology company, with some sort of plot by Hugo Chávez and George Soros.

"American patriots are fed up with corruption from the local level to the highest level of our government and we are going to take this country back," she said. "President Trump won by a landslide and we're going to prove it." But when the team was asked to provide evidence for their claims, Jenna Ellis, another campaign adviser, said: "Your question is fundamentally flawed." She insisted the Trump campaign would produce the evidence in court.

But in fact, the court cases have been notable for their complete lack of evidence. The tactic is clearly to use political communication on social media and in press conferences to make an argument for fraud and stress that the evidence is being presented in court, while then counting on the fact that Trump's supporters will not bother to investigate what happens in front of judges, where the claims are quickly and humiliatingly dismissed. The fact Trump himself clearly does not really believe his allegations is demonstrated by the fact that his fundraising for the legal challenges is in fact a mechanism to secure a war chest for future political activity.

Instead of condemning what is happening, Republicans seem mostly content to play along with it and occasionally actively pursue it. Congressional Republicans have assented to Trump's blockage of the presidential transition process, even on coronavirus. They don't believe it either. Many claim that they are trying to present him with an easy off-ramp for his departure, demonstrating once again that it is always macho strongmen who are least able to control their emotional hysteria. In reality, they are warily considering his future role in politics, and orbiting around that eventuality rather than democratic norms.

This is having an effect on Republican voters. A recent Monmouth University poll found 81% of Trump voters were not confident the election had been conducted fairly and 77% believed Joe Biden only won due to voter fraud.

Perhaps we were complacent in the wake of the election result. Those of us outside of America had the comfort of seeing world leaders call Biden to welcome him to the presidency. The prospect of Trump being able to blockade himself in the White House passed away. Giuliani's press conference between a sex shop and a crematorium presented the Trump campaign not as a threat to American democracy, but a black comedy - more Dr Strangelove than Man in the High Castle.

But we're seeing something which could have devastating repercussions for American political life and, through it, our own. One of the two main parties in the US is giving up its belief in the democratic process. It is putting support for Trump above support for the Republic. If that remains the case, the entire system disintegrates. The cultural convictions on which it operates cease to function. That is the situation we now face: not a sudden shock in 2020, but a corrosion across 2021-2024.

From this vantage point, there is little we can do, although political leaders outside the US should be more vocal in their dismay. But we can at least internalise something elemental about politics - that what we thought is customary is in fact radical. That the acknowledgement of electoral defeat is a core aspect of the democratic process. That undermining the legitimacy of the system eradicates it for everyone. That you have to maintain high democratic standards within parties as well as in the system itself. And that any country - no matter how large, powerful or well established - can fall victim to tyrannical instincts unless it guards against them.

Those Republicans who do not speak up now about what is happening have lost any right to participate in public life. They should be held in disgrace for the rest of their careers. And that is not for punishment, although that would be well deserved. It is to prop up the structures and cultural assumptions which make liberty possible.

These are all very lofty and pompous words. You don't ever want to find yourself talking about things like liberty in modern politics, or else you sound like one of those over-excitable 'classical liberal' bores on Twitter who still haven't gotten over the fact they have to wear seat belts. But that's where we are - that's the severity of the situation which is being created. The time for coddling the man-baby is gone. He needs to be taken down. And it has to be by his own side.

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

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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