Much is being made of the critical aspects of the recently published essay authored by Professor Allyson Pollock, co-director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science and Dr Louisa Harding-Edgar, a Glasgow GP and Academic fellow in general practice at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health & Wellbeing, The media have, as is their wont, latched onto those aspects of the report which are most damning of the Scottish and UK governments’ handling of the coronavirus crisis. The National headline is fairly typical – Scottish Government should have acted quicker on coronavirus, think tank says.
And that’s fair enough. I wouldn’t seriously dispute any of the criticisms. It is perfectly fair to say that the ban on mass gatherings introduced by Nicola Sturgeon on 12 March was “too little too late” while acknowledging that it was the right thing to do. Even the scathing condemnation of the Scottish Government’s “incomprehensible” willingness to toe the UK Government’s line seems well warranted.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the British Covid crisis is the Scottish Government has allowed its strategy and the operations to be directed by Westminster, which has taken a London-centric approach to the epidemic and with respect to the lockdown.
I would urge the we accept all of the criticism contained in the report without descending into the ‘blame game’. The reproachful tone of the essay is sufficiently justified. Arguments about how blame should be apportioned between administrations and individual politicians would be arid and endless and would tend to obscure the main thrust of the report which is that it is vital to focus on what we can learn from this situation. We are all novices in this situation.
We all have much to learn. Past mistakes and misjudgements cannot be undone. But they hold lessons for us that we would be extremely foolish to ignore. Much of what Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar say about the Scottish and UK government’s could be said of every government in the world. Their essay can be a political stick to beat one or the other or both parties to a partisan dispute. Or it can be a teaching tool. Our very survival may depend on whether we take umbrage at the criticism or take heed of the advice.
Biological and other warfare
Experience leads me to presume that Unionists will be incensed by the idea that the Scottish Government should have acted more independently of the UK Government. The knee-jerk reaction from British politicians will be to treat this aspect of the report as if it were a propaganda tool for the campaign to restore Scotland’s independence. It is unlikely that they will see beyond this pitifully shallow appreciation of the document and recognise that what the report says about the Scottish Government being more assertive and less compliant in its dealings with the UK Government is only part of a more localised and structured approach to the threat of viral pandemics. It is about decisions being taken and actions implemented at the most appropriate level. It may not be possible to divorce this entirely from the wider constitutional issue, but we can surely prioritise.
That threat has always been there. Covid-19 is a wake-up call. We have lived with the threat largely through ignorance. We can no longer plead ignorance. The measures taken by governments have been little short of draconian. Certainly, the ‘lockdown’ restrictions and compromised civil and human rights would have been totally unacceptable.in what will only with great difficulty cease to think of as ‘normal’ circumstances. And yet these are the very measure which we should have been prepared to implement both more immediately and more severely. Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar are fully cognisant of the fact that measures to effectively combat a viral pandemic inevitably have implications for civil and human rights.
Scotland was working to put human rights at the heart of its policies and in advancing the cause of social, economic, and cultural rights. COVID has not only set this work back, it has set back human rights. Children are being denied their human right to an education. Meanwhile, the Disability Law Service condemned the COVID legislation as regressive and punitive for older people and people with disabilities, reducing care to essential services necessary to comply with basic human rights. This legislation is resulting in untold damage for mental health and physical wellbeing, for older people and those with learning disabilities.
There is undoubtedly a danger that, even with the very best of intentions, compromises with the rights of individuals or groups may become excessive. There is an even greater danger that such measure become entrenched. That what is tolerated imposition in a crisis becomes established as a necessary precaution against future crises. In their essay Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar warn of “collateral damage from COVID” as both institutions and individuals strive to adapt to the ‘new normal’. Hospital wards lie half-empty while people are dying at home because they are reluctant to put pressure on health services which they are constantly being told are under strain. Chronic conditions are going untreated and serious symptoms are not being reported. The ‘downstream’ impact on Covid-19 may by some measures be worse than the actual disease.
Viruses and other pathogens
The fundamental lessons to be taken from the report is that we were unprepared for the current public health crisis and that we must never be so unready again. We have to plan for a repeat of the Covid-19 pandemic in one form or another. The pathogen – almost certainly a virus – that will exterminate most of the human race may already exist. Even if it doesn’t, we have to act as if it does. We have to plan for its arrival. That could be in ten years or ten thousand years or tomorrow. We have no way of knowing. Even if the next pandemic turns out to be less than the extinction level event that it might be, we must prepared for it as if it is.
Viruses – and pathogens in general – neither know nor care whether they are the one that will have the distinction of being the one that brings down human civilisation. The precautions against non-lethal viruses are the same as the precautions against the really lethal ones. But the greater threat to human civilisation might be the precautions we take against viral pandemics. Living is more than being alive. Human beings are social creatures. Isolation is against our nature. But isolation is the key to defeating viral infections.
Survival and other instincts
Our future will be dominated by the struggle to resolve the conflict between our social instinct and our instinct to survive. We will get it wrong. We will probably get it wrong more than we get it right. Hopefully, we won’t repeat the mistakes we’ve already made. But never doubt the human capacity for finding novel ways to fuck things up. The best we can hope for; and what we must aim for, is that none of these mistakes is the ‘Final Fuck-up’. The one that would go down in history but for the fact that there’s nobody left to write that history.
If isolation is the key to avoiding a viral pandemic that might wipe us out then preparation is essential in order that we can turn that key when we need to and only when we needs to. Preparation is obviously also essential to ensure that when we do turn the key it instantly activates the mechanisms and processes by which the threat can be averted. It is only by effective planning for the worst that we can restore and preserve something of our social existence; as well as the infrastructure which supports our civilised existence. We can’t restore the ignorance that allowed us to lead the lives that we came to regard as normal. We cannot ‘unknow’ what we now know. But neither can we live in constant dread and a high state of readiness. Only the assurance that effective plans are in place to deal with the viral threat can we hope to dial down the fear and tension.
That life will be different post-Covid is a given. Things must change. What matters is manner of that change and how it is managed. It is a question of who shapes the new normal. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Perhaps the old normal wasn’t normal at all. Could it be that the pandemic is analogous to the defibrillator which delivers a shock so as to restore a normal heartbeat? Might this not be a helpful way to think about how we manage change and shape our future?
Power and using it
Coronavirus Crisis: Underfunding, Restructuring, Privatisation and Fragmentation at the Heart of the Crisis in Holyrood and Westminster is a thought-provoking document. Each of us will have our own thoughts. But will we have a say? Will our thoughts feed into the process of reshaping society for the new reality? It is a truism of democratic politics that if individuals do not use the power they have then that power will be used by others. If we aren’t involved in the exercise than we must be resigned to whatever outcome others choose for us. If we are now thinking of the old normal as abnormal we have to ask how it came to be so. We have to identify the forces which formed this abnormality. And the forces which failed to form our society differently. We must take responsibility. Each and all of us must acknowledge that things were the way they were because we didn’t do enough to ensure that things were what we wanted. We either created that abnormal or we allowed it to be created. Either way, it’s our fault. Let’s not do that again!
Politicians only have the power that we give them. The people are sovereign. That is not a nationalist war-cry. It is as it must be. Politicians are managers. They manage the power of the people on behalf of the people. Or they don’t. In which case, it is the responsibility of the people to strip said politicians of the power given to them by the people. If ultimate powers resides with the people then so does ultimate responsibility. That’s not me channelling Spiderman. That’s just as it must be.
Democracy works best when government is as close to the people as is consistent with its assigned function. Being closer to the source of its power tends to make government more responsive to that power. Public policy tends to better reflect the needs, priorities and aspirations of the people served by a government with which they can relate. That is to say, a government which is close to them. Bringing government closer to the people creates a virtuous cycle.
The converse is also true. The more distant government is the less it tends to respond to the electorate and the less the electorate relate to it. The more distant the government, the less it is regarded as having legitimate authority. The less people regard government’s authority as legitimate the less they cooperate with that government and the less they are inclined to participate in the democratic process. The less people participate in the democratic process the less they are able to ensure they keep government close. The vicious cycle is all too evident.
Doing and being done to
In their essay, Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar make it clear that, to be effective, the structures and mechanisms for dealing with a future viral outbreak must be founded in communities. To work at a national and global level the necessary measures must be implemented at a local level. It all comes down to the behaviour of individuals. The way to stop a virus being treated is to isolate the infected individual(s) and so starve the virus of new hosts. If nobody in the whole world ever came close enough to another person to allow transmission, there would be no possibility of a viral pandemic. There would also be no people. Unless we’re indulging in speculation about procreation without copulation, we must regard such an extreme of isolation as being impossible to achieve and certainly impossible to maintain without massive population decline.
Nonetheless, we should keep this ‘ideal’ of total isolation in mind as we devise the structures and mechanisms that will be triggered at the first sign of a potentially dangerous viral outbreak. The aim must be to initiate a state of isolation as close to the ideal of total isolation as is humanly possible. And to maintain that state for as long as may be necessary. And to ensure the new new normal we’ve created is such that we can easily return to it without the kind of massive restructuring that we will face when we exit the current public health crisis. And to have all of these structures in place and ready to be initiated at a moment’s notice whilst making them as unobtrusive as possible. We should barely be aware of the emergency plan as we go about our daily lives. At the same time, we must be sufficiently knowledgeable about it to be able to play our part as individuals when the switch is thrown.
That’s an impressive set of criteria. Add it to the observations and advice offered by Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar and you have a daunting task. There simply is no way such an emergency response can be left to any central government. If it is imposed from the top down then by the time it filters down to communities and individuals it will be so diminished as to be totally ineffective. The very nature of the thing is such that it is as easy to break as it is difficult to make. The biggest and most perfectly formed bubble can be destroyed by a single pin-prick. The innate social traits of human beings means that there will always be a powerful tendency for chains of transmission to form. That tendency can only be countered if everybody cooperates willingly. The emergency plan envisaged won’t be like a wartime blackout, which can be imposed and policed by central government. There is no way to impose the kind of isolation that is required because there is no way to police it. It is only possible on condition and to the extent that every citizen participates of their own free will.
Isolated but connected
Which brings me to my final point almost as neatly as if this was planned. I would not be the first to remark on how well people have cooperated and participated. It has been extraordinary. Which means that it deserves to be examined. It also means that it can’t be relied upon. We cannot safely assume that because people have broadly gone along with the lockdown etc. they will do so to anything like the same extent the next time. Not only is this ‘broadly going along’ inadequate for the purpose of preventing the spread of a viral infection, it cannot be relied upon. The entire atmosphere could change in an instant. Lockdown could so easily break down.
I wondered about this apparent willingness to go along with restrictions and regulations such as one would imagine might characterise a police state. (Police Scotland surely deserve some credit for this. This was not what they signed up for.) It has to be acknowledged that Nicola Sturgeon has been superb. She has made mistakes. That is understandable. As I said earlier, we are all novices in this situation. Despite these mistakes, I am firmly persuaded that her demeanour has been excellent. She carries the authority that comes with respect – however grudgingly that respect may be given. I haven’t the slightest doubt that her leadership has contributed massively to whatever success the lockdown has achieved. But this is not enough to explain why so many people have so readily accepted the restrictions and the isolation. I think I know what does.
Try to imagine the lockdown without the internet and the cellphone network. I think you’ll find it difficult. I know I did. We may be physically isolated. But we are not socially isolated. That is what makes the current situation tolerable. Perhaps more than just tolerable. Perhaps something close to the new normal? It is also our main hope of devising the mechanisms to combat viral outbreaks.
Technology has changed. As technology has changed, so have people. We have adapted to the technology. I am old enough to remember the early days of video recorders and the problems they caused for some – mostly older – people who had difficulty getting their heads around the concept of time-shift. It wasn’t so much the technology which baffled them as the paradox of moving things in time. There was just something unnatural about sitting down on Sunday afternoon to watch the Dr Who episode that had been on the night before. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. Older people famously – perhaps apocryphally – couldn’t use the timer on their VCR (video cassette recorder). Not that they didn’t understand the mechanism or couldn’t operate the controls. The difficulty was with the concept of going forward in time to snatch an event and move it forward in time by an unspecified amount so that at some time in the future you could watch an event that is now in the future but will then be in the past. This was not explained in the user manual for the new Ferguson VCR.
You won’t find anybody with that problem today. Most of us have grown up with that technology and its successors. We now have to get our heads around fridges that order milk and instructing the car to use your phone to tell the oven to switch itself on when you’re ten kilometres from home. It is sobering to think that there are people alive today who were born at a time when there were no telephones. Or, at least, that they were a rarity few ever expected to see far less use. Telephones are so ubiquitous now that it is difficult to imagine a time when people had to get accustomed to remote communication. The idea that you could actually have a conversation with someone in another town or even another country was completely alien to most people little more than 100 years ago. Now, we have video chats with friends in France while waiting in the queue at the supermarket checkout. Something else that may be superseded by technology.
Forwards or backwards
The final part of the report under discussion is headed The Way Forward. In it, Professor Pollock and Dr Harding-Edgar refer to some of the institutional and infrastructural changes they consider necessary mainly relating to social services and healthcare. They seek to create conditions better suited to combating future viral outbreaks. I like their thinking. Anything which makes our essential public services more robust and resilient has to be good. But I felt that one thing was missing. The internet. Our ability to successfully implement and sustain emergency measures in the face of a major public health threat is, I believe, directly linked to and critically dependent on our capacity for remote communication. Extending and improving broadband and cellular networks has to be a core element of planning for a virus-resistant society. Nothing else works if the internet doesn’t.
Fortunately, a large part of the population has already adapted to this technology. Over the last few weeks even more people have familiarising themselves with the likes of Skype and Zoom as they strive to maintain contact with family and friends. Thousands of people have discovered that working from home is not only possible, but has distinct advantages. Perhaps more significantly, employers are learning that their businesses can cope perfectly well without all those people crowding into offices – and potentially infecting one another.
Life post-Covid will be different. But different isn’t necessarily worse. This crisis is also an opportunity. It is our chance to create a new normal. Or, to look at it another way, to rectify the abnormality we’d become so accustomed to we thought it was normal. The lockdown may well have afforded us a glimpse of this new normal. Instead of talking about what will be different when the crisis is over, maybe we could discuss what aspects of this strange new existence we’d like to keep. The lockdown is not all bad. It is certainly something we can learn from. Let’s do that!
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