For years we have been pleading with Nicola Sturgeon to show the Yes movement some leadership. The first time she actually steps up, it’s to order a halt to the independence campaign. Apparently, there is only one thing happening in the world at the moment and if we don’t all focus our entire attention on that thing every waking moment and in fitful dreams when sleep overtakes us then we are really terrible people. All is coronavirus! Coronavirus is all! You shall have neither consideration nor concern for anything other than coronavirus and matter directly relating thereto, on pain of being denounced as a callous, uncaring sub-human aberration.
It’s not only the entire independence campaign that has been on hold. All disbelief has also been suspended. You can tell the mindless mob absolutely anything and if you attach the word “coronavirus” to it and speak in sufficiently portentous tones you will be believed and your instructions will be meticulously followed. The crisis must be served. Whatever the crisis demands it must be given. The crisis is the deity and politicians are the priesthood interceding selflessly on behalf of their flock and passing on those demands. Demands which by strange coincidence happen to be precisely what serves the interests of the priesthood.
That there is a genuine public health crisis is not in doubt. But potentially far more damaging in the longer term than coronavirus is the pandemic of hysterical credulousness that has transformed people into Play-Doh for politicians. There’s a contagious viral disease spreading through populations. But there’s never a day when that isn’t true. The preventative precautions amount to no more than what sensible people do as a matter of habit. And the actual seriousness of the disease is massively exaggerated by the standard methods employed by mass media to sensationalise, scandalise and titillate.
Truth is said to be the first victim of war. The first victim of any crisis appears to be context. Every news source is trumpeting constantly updated count of victims and fatalities. Milestone numbers are ‘breaking news’ pushing everything else off pages and screens. 1,000 DEAD!!! It’s a scary number. Scary in the same way as the random but jaw-dropping figure attached to Scotland’s mythical deficit is scary. It’s the scariest figure they can get away with. They use scary numbers for a reason. To scare you! Why? Because frightened people are more easily manipulated.
Experts are, of course, boring. They are boring because they insist on providing boring context when all the interviewer or reporter wants to hear – and wants the audience to hear – are scary stories and scary numbers. That’s why non-passive consumers of mass media messages always question everything. Just as simple hand-washing and the kind of social distancing urban-dwellers profess to crave are effective defences against disease, so scepticism and awareness of how propaganda works offer good protection against the all too often malign manipulative purposes of the media.
If you are reading this article, and have read this far, I’m assuming you are not one of those passive consumers of media messages. They, in any case, are all out scouring the land for the hand sanitising gel that they’ve never used in their lives before but now might well kill to possess. So long as they don’t have to get within sneezing distance of their victim. Being actively critical consumers of media messages, you will be interested in a bit of that ‘common-sense’ context that succumbed to virulent news values in the early days of the current emergency. Nae bother!
I decided to do a little experiment just to see how easy it is for the general public to find the kind of information which serves as an antidote to the scaremongering of media and politicians. I settled on a very obvious search term – “coronavirus survival rate” – and made it the rule that I had to take the first article returned as my source. This happened to be Health.com and an article by Leah Groth dated 16 March 2020 and titled What to Know About the Survival Rate of Coronavirus—And How Many People Have Died From the Illness. After quoting ‘boring expert’ Jeremy Brown, MD, director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health (US) pointing out that “there’s not enough information that’s readily available yet to determine the true survival rate of COVID-19”, the article provides the following.
As for the data we do have, that information also shows a low fatality rate and high survival rate for COVID-19. In a viewpoint article published February 24 in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), the authors looked at the case records of 72,314 patients, 44,672 of which were confirmed as having COVID-19. Of those confirmed cases, 36,160 cases, or 81%, showed only mild symptoms, while 14% were severe and 5% critical. The overall case-fatality rate, or coronavirus cases that ended in death, was only 2.3%, or 1,023 deaths, out of the total number of confirmed cases.
Also worth noting, according Dr. Juthani: “[Coronavirus] appears to be more deadly for adults, especially those with other medical conditions”—no deaths have been reported in children, nor were any reported in those who had a mild or severe case of the illness. Dr. Brown also points out that those with chronic heart or lung problems and those who are immunocompromised are also at a higher risk of death.
What a difference context makes. For a bit more context here are some scary numbers about influenza deaths through the ages.
- 1889 Russian flu pandemic: About 1 million flu deaths
- 1918 Spanish flu pandemic: Over 40 to 50 million flu deaths, including about 675,000 in the United States. The flu infected over half of the world’s population by the end of this pandemic.
- 1957 Asian flu pandemic: Over 1 million flu deaths, including about 69,800 in the United States
- 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic: About 1 to 3 million flu deaths
- 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic: Between 8,870 and 18,300 deaths in the United States and up to 203,000 deaths worldwide specifically from H1N1
The current COVID-19 pandemic is serious. But other stuff is still happening despite it. Life, as they say, goes on. It went on during and after the epidemics listed above. It is going on here and now. We’re just being discouraged from looking too closely at the other stuff that’s going on. A lot of effort is being put into making the coronavirus crisis into a monumental diversion. Mostly, to divert us from what is still going on in the realm of politics. Do not imagine for one moment that politicians all around the world – along with the Mini-me Machiavellis who advise them – were not thinking of ways to exploit the pandemic long before they started considering ways of dealing with it.
This is not to say that politicians contrived the crisis. Merely that they take opportunistic advantage of it. Which will not prevent the conspiracy theories proliferating like bugs. It’s always the same. The terrorist attacks on New York’s Twin Towers provide a telling – and appalling – example of the way in which politicians exploit such tragedies. There is absolutely no doubt that the murderous hawks in the Bush regime used the ‘9/11’ attacks as a vehicle for their own warmongering purposes. The fact that it suited them doesn’t mean that they had anything to do with the planning and execution of the attacks. Only with hindsight does the human mind find the connections that create the patterns it craves.
The good news is that, as yet, nobody is using the coronavirus outbreak as a pretext for launching a war. Although I have to qualify that by stating that I haven’t been following Donald Trump’s Twitter feed today. Or ever, for that matter. We can be certain, however, that politicians are exploiting the crisis in more low-level ways. Many in ways that they consider harmless. The crisis is happening anyway. So why not use it. So long as using it doesn’t make it worse or interfere with relief efforts, where’s the harm? If anybody mentions morality we can always point at ‘9/11’ and urge them to consider the context that makes what they’re doing relatively moral by comparison.
We don’t have to look far for an example of this low-level political exploitation of a crisis for political ends. Only as far as Edinburgh. Only as far as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP.
It is a fact that, while initially denied by most and only lately acknowledged by increasing numbers of people, Ms Sturgeon was guilty of a serious error of judgement in committing to the British state’s Section 30 process as the means of securing a new constitutional referendum. It was an approach which was critically dependent on obtaining the willing, honest and comprehensive cooperation of the British government. It was never going to work. It failed immediately, disastrously and very evidently – despite there being surviving pockets of ‘True Believers’ who put faith before reason and genuinely suppose that the cooperation described will yet be forthcoming. We just have to wait. We should be good at that by now. Many of us will never be good at waiting when delay means missed opportunities and increased risk to Scotland’s democracy.
Ever since Boris Johnson contemptuously dismissed Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘demand’ for a Section 30 order she has been at a total loss as to what to do next. Not that the curt and discourteous refusal came as a surprise to many folk. But the Scottish Government simply hadn’t planned for it. I know that defies belief. But that’s not because it’s untrue. It’s only because it defies reason. The failure to plan for refusal of the Section 30 request is just one of those things we have to accept as defying explanation. Although explanation of a sort is possible. Nicola Sturgeon did not plan for rejection of her request, despite this being anticipated, because there was nothing she could plan. The only options left were ones which she is not politically able to pursue. Having committed completely, inextricably and irreversibly to the Section 30 process she had to just plough ahead and hope for the best. As so often happens when people resort to hoping for the best, she got the worst. Or, at least, something rather unpleasant. Coronavirus came to her rescue – all the ‘Knights in Shining Armour’ apparently being otherwise occupied delivering pizza on their ‘White Steeds’.
Whatever else it is, the COVID-19 outbreak is undoubtedly the the perfect cover for Nicola Sturgeon. And that is the point that so many are missing as they screech at spit at me for pointing out the simple truth that the world is more complicated than a newspaper headline and it is almost never the case that a thing is just the one thing. Most things can be two or more different things depending on perspective and our late lamented friend, context. It is perfectly possible for something to be simultaneously a human tragedy and a political godsend. Not all the high-minded posturing and frantic virtue-signalling to be found on Facebook will make the world any less complicated than it is.
Just as things can be two things at once, so people can do more than one thing at a time. They can engage with more than a single all-encompassing preoccupation. So normal is it for people to deal with a number of activities in their lives that we regard the opposite as an illness. We call such people ‘obsessive’. We send them for counselling. We practice our social distancing on them.
So it was that when I received an email from Nicola Sturgeon ‘instructing’ me – a campaigner for independence of almost 60 years standing – to cease and desist, I was displeased. I was very displeased. I know a wee bit about communication, particularly in relation to political campaigns. And this was the wrong message.
I will gloss over the unseemly presumption of Nicola Sturgeon suddenly deciding she does want to lead the Yes movement after all. And my personal bemusement at being ordered from the field by someone who has, by her own choice, no authority over the movement of which I am proud to be part. Let’s just deal with the offending line highlighted. That it is the wrong message from the viewpoint of a political campaign hardly needs to be stated. At a time when the Yes campaign is going to be seriously hampered by restrictions occasioned by the public health crisis, what was required – what was appropriate – was a message of encouragement. Not a declaration of surrender. What would have struck the right note was a message acknowledging the difficulties but appealing for an effort to overcome those difficulties. Something about keeping the campaign going because what we are campaigning for will still be crucially important to our nation and future generations long after coronavirus has done its worst.
So, how do we explain this totally defeatist line? My suspicion is that it is the work, not of Nicola Sturgeon – although she signed it and is therefore responsible – but of one of those Mini-me Machiavellis I mentioned earlier. Told that the pandemic was to be used to avoid The Boss having to admit she’d driven the independence project into a brick wall, the overenthusiastic underling went a bit too far and order a complete halt to “all campaigning”.
It rather goes without saying that, whatever the explanation for this message being sent out, it is unacceptable. And yet the impression I get is that most people in the Yes movement have meekly accepted it. The naivety is dumbfounding. These people seem to suppose that British Nationalists won’t exploit the situation for their own ends. They appear to imagine we can just park the Yes campaign while we go off to do something else, however worthy, and come back to find it still there and ready to pick up where we left off. Which, you may recall, is not a good place. It’s not going to get better with time.
The independence campaign was in a parlous state on account of the horrible blunder of Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to the Section 30 process. Recovering from that dreadful misjudgement was going to require urgent action by a united Yes movement. Nicola Sturgeon has now driven in another wedge to widen the fissure caused by the Section 30 debacle. The Yes movement is weakened and partially paralysed by her cease and desist interdict. I saw only a slim hope of recovery from the situation we were in before COVID-19 struck. That hope is now invisibly slender. And coronavirus is only partly to blame.
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