Won't somebody think of the millions

One of things about writing a blog that is the source of much fun and often a deal of frustration is the process of deciding what to write about. Obviously, when you’re a politics anorak like myself there are the major political topics of the day. Occasionally, however, there’s just nothing that pokes your imagination with a sharp stick. You look at the news web sites and it’s wall-to-wall scandal involving some celebrity or royal or politician. If the streets are littered with journalists writhing in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy you can assume a particularly salacious story has broken involving one or more individuals combining the essential attributes of substantial wealth, unearned privilege, elected office and an uncommon (preferably unnameable) sexual peccadillo. That sort of stuff leaves me cold.

Then there’s the situation we have just now, What I call a mono-crisis. As the term suggests, and as is illustrated by the COVID-19 megafuss, this refers to the sort of incident or development that comes to occupy all the top spots on the news pages. The sort of thing that quickly becomes a hook on which to hang any and every piece of reporting and writing. When you scroll down a bit from Coronavirus death toll and find Coronavirus recipes you know you’ve got a mono-crisis.

Somewhere between these extremes you get the single-issue campaigns and hobby-horse issues trying to piggy-back on the mono-crisis frenzy while it lasts as well as the well-meaning advice and the ‘Lovejoys’ – collectively known a the colon pieces. (I hasten to point out that this refers to the punctuation mark and not the lower intestine.) Here’s an example from today’s Sunday National – Coronavirus: ‘We need new ways to protect women from violence’. This is not to diminish the issue of domestic violence. It is merely to illustrate a piggy-backing colon piece headline. No judgement on the article itself is implied or, indeed, possible given that I haven’t yet read it. There’s bound to be an article somewhere in today’s papers that brings together coronavirus and climate change and/or coronavirus and nuclear disarmament and/or coronavirus and some other hobby-horse issue. Often involving an appeal for charitable giving. Again, no judgement.

The Sunday National also provides an example of the advice variety of colon piece, although this time the colon is implied. How can you take care of your emotional well-being during COVID-19? In a lesser publication, this might well be a quick rewrite of a piece that appeared last November or early December under the headline How can you take care of your emotional well-being during the Festive Season?

What about the ‘Lovejoys’? Named for the character in The Simpsons this refers to the appeals to consider a particular demographic or special interest group. The line ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!’ has passed into everyday language, often replacing ‘children’ with some other specific category of people. Recently, for instance, we’ve heard ‘Won’t somebody please think of the self-employed!’. You can probably think of your own examples. Again, I am obliged to state that these may well be deserving groups of individuals. I’m talking here about media, not people.

The point is that a mono-crisis breeds predictable offshoots of various sorts which pack the media and push everything else out of sight. Which may suit some people just fine.

One last mention of a particular type of offshoot – the gesture. This is the pieces urging people to make a common gesture to mark, celebrate or memorialise a date event or person. You know the sort of thing – ‘Put a candle in your window as an expression of the nation’s gratitude for the work done by candle manufacturers!’. That sort of thing.

The focus of the mono-crisis becomes almost like a commodity or a brand. Or even a celebrity. It is attached to all manner of things either to pique he interest of browsers or to fill the spaces between advertising material. Coronavirus/COVID-19 is no different. It gets used. It gets exploited in diverse ways. That’s neither necessarily a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just the way people work. And the way the media work. It can be a good thing if it leads to people being better informed and more aware. It can be a bad thing if it trivialises a serious issue or misleads people.

The latter is an aspect of the mono-crisis phenomenon which is a significant concern. The mono-crisis can drag on for weeks or months or years. People being what they are, interest wanes. So there is always the temptation to embellish mono-crisis-related stories to make them more titillating. Just yesterday, I encountered some buffoon on Facebook talking about the population being “wiped out”. We may dismiss this as being of no consequence both because it is such an obvious and ludicrous exaggeration and because it’s on Facebook – where stupid goes to get a lobotomy. Research that I’ve just made up has shown that your IQ drops by one point for every hour spent on Facebook. The guy ranting about coronavirus wiping out populations had obviously been on Facebook for several days.

Early estimates put the case mortality rate no higher than 1%. That’s a much smaller percentage of all infections, around 80% of which will result in only mild symptoms and may not even be noticed. At population level the impact is negligible.*

It would be good if we could dismiss such nonsense. But how often have we found that today’s social media drivel is tomorrow’s Herald headline? One Facebook reference is enough foundation for some ‘journalist’ to author a piece ‘asking the question’ as to whether there is growing panic about mass deaths. The sort of article that offers solemn warnings about irresponsible exaggeration spiced with lurid language of the kind it purports to be condemning. MILLIONS WILL DIE! has the same effect as WILL MILLIONS DIE? when shouted from headlines.

I was thinking all this as I perused the papers looking for inspiration. The train of thought was prompted, in part, by Mike Russell’s comment piece in the Sunday National, the gist of which may be gathered from the headline – Politicians are solely focused on Covid-19 fight. That headline caught my attention. It is interesting, not so much for what it says, but for the reaction it is likely to prompt. It’s surely safe to assume that most people seeing that statement would feel reassured. They’d think it a good thing and a proper thing that politicians should be exclusively focused on the public health emergency. It is a mono-crisis, after all. We all know what ‘mono’ implies from common expressions such as ‘monotonous’, monosyllabic and ‘monomaniacal’. And we all know what a crisis is because there is never a time when we aren’t in the midst of a crisis, just recovering from a crisis or preparing for an imminent crisis. It’s appropriate that our politicians should be “solely focused” on the current mono-crisis. Isn’t it?

A few people – probably very few – would look at that headline and think to themselves that this exclusive focus on a single matter was extremely irresponsible. No matter how serious the issue, there are always other issues. Some of these are chronic and will deteriorate rapidly if not properly managed and overseen. We don’t elect politicians to deal with a single issue. We elect them to manage all the nation’s affairs. ALL the nation’s affairs! Either Mike Russell is indulging in a bit of rhetorical micturation or our elected representatives are being derelict in their duty.

Context is essential to a proper understanding of any situation. It allows us to bring to bear a sense of proportion. Of course, it is right that there should be concern for those affected by COVID-19. But what about the 99.997% of the population who will not die from coronavirus-related causes? Do they not deserve some consideration also? Should our politicians not be focusing at least partially on the future beyond this mono-crisis?

Another thing that nudged my neurons when considering what to write about today was a comment on a previous blog article. The individual posting the comment gave the impression of being incandescent with indignant out rage calling me “inhumane” and suggesting that articles such as mine should be the target of some kind of official censorship. My offence? Apparently, I am a monster because I wrote about the pandemic from the perspective of a political commentator rather than from the point of view of someone actually witnessing the suffering of the afflicted. It seems that this is the only perspective that is permissible. To even entertain in one’s private thoughts, never mind one’s published writing, the wider implications of the pandemic equates to some kind of heresy. Context is prohibited. A sense of proportion is forbidden. Proper understanding is improper. It all lends a new and ominous meaning to the term mono-crisis. Not only must we focus solely on the one issue, we must see it in only one way.

This comment had a profound effect on me. I decided not to write about coronavirus.

* https://www.vox.com/2020/3/5/21165973/coronavirus-death-rate-explained

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Tragedy and godsend

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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A politician speaks

I’m not sure a strategy of escalating measures is appropriate in the circumstances. It seems to me that what is required to deal with coronavirus is drastic preemptive action rather than reacting to a worsening situation. Why, for example, only ban gatherings of over 500 people. Is infection less likely to spread in a group of 499 than in a group of 501? Surely, on average, the same percentage of people will be infected. if the infection rate is 60% then in a gathering of 1000 people 600 will contract the disease. Two gatherings of 500 people resulting in 300 new infections each give exactly the same outcome. It does nothing to stop the spread of the disease.

Fortunately, a combination of good sense and fear is likely to more effective as it deters people from assembling in groups of any size. Self-isolation after symptoms are in evidence also does nothing to stop the spread of the disease as it is, by definition, a measure taken after the disease has already spread. What stops a pandemic in its tracks is a total cessation of any physical contact or proximity between individuals initiated the moment the virus is detected in the population. This may not be practicable. But the precautionary principle would require us to take this ideal as our starting point and scale back only when and to the extent cannot be avoided.

Escalating towards the most effective measures in response to data about the spread of the disease cannot be effective as you will always and necessarily be acting too late. It’s not epidemiology. It’s just good sense.

So why isn’t it happening? What other reason than political cowardice?

The UK Government is arguably further behind the curve than many other governments. But I see no cause for smug superiority while our own First Minister makes idiotically contradictory statements in which she claims “all possible steps” are being taken then immediately refers to steps which are not being taken as a matter of choice.

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